On Nov. 9, residents of Mississippi defeated a ballot initiative that, if passed, would recognize all fertilized eggs as people. Initiative 26, the Personhood Amendment, backed by Personhood USA, was defeated 55 to 45 per cent. The measure might have led to a legal challenge because of its contradiction to the 1973 Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade. It needed 89,285 signatures to get on the ballot. In the end, it received over 130,000. Opponents feared that the measure would ban all abortions, some forms of birth control, and make doctors more reluctant to carry out in vitro fertilization treatments. Some pro-lifers have also expressed reservations about the ballot because they felt it was too ambiguous or would not ban abortion. “The loss has no immediate implications as the initiative restricted what the government could do, not what individuals could do,” Charmaine Yoest, president and CEO of Americans United for Life (AUL), said in a press release. “The measure would have restrained government actions – government-funded abortions – and not abortions conducted by individuals or enterprises such as Planned Parenthood.”

On its website, Personhood USA defines personhood as “the cultural and legal recognition of the equal and unalienable rights of human beings.” Therefore, “if we clearly define the preborn baby as a person, they will have the same right to life as all Americans do.” Personhood USA was established two years ago with the aim of assisting grassroots volunteers in making initiatives to affirm the personhood of the unborn. By January 2011, there were personhood petitions in all 50 states.

AUL senior counsel Clarke Forsythe pointed out in the Washington Times that “far from being newly minted in Mississippi, recognition of the personhood of the unborn child is a movement as old as English common law, with a long tradition of acknowledging the value that such children hold for their expectant parents and family.” More recently, the state of Arkansas enacted an amendment in the 1980s to protect the life of every child from conception. Alabama prosecutes fetal homicide and its Supreme Court recently ruled that family members are allowed to sue for wrongful death of an unborn child.

Staff counsel J. Margaret Datiles of AUL wrote in an article for the organization that “the media and others engaging in the life debate need to recognize the distinctions between the definitions of moral personhood, statutory and common law personhood and constitutional personhood…increased awareness must be given to the fact that the unborn are protected in law in certain circumstances without constitutional personhood.” However, “if an activist state supreme court enshrines Roe in a state constitution, adopting a tightly drafted amendment that is tailored to that decision with the specific intent to correct the decision would be the only way to address the situation,” making a personhood amendment useful.

Personhood USA plans to run ballot initiatives similar to Mississippi’s in California, Montana, Florida, Ohio, Oregon, and Nevada in 2012. As well, it is planning to put forward laws guaranteeing protection for all human life from the moment of fertilization in Alabama, Wisconsin, and Michigan.