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How Mississippi's Vote Today Could Put Pregnant Women Under State Control

A personhood amendment is a backdoor to stripping away women’s rights -- their very right to be considered autonomous human beings.

Tuesday’s ballot initiative in Mississippi regarding a constitutional amendment that would grant fertilized eggs legal personhood is polling right down to the wire,  with 45% of Mississippians favoring it  and 44% opposed. Gender influences opinion on this initiative somewhat, with men favoring it by six percentage points and women opposing it by four percentage points. Race and party affiliation has even more influence, with Democrats and African-Americans registering around 60% opposition to the amendment. This suggests that the racial and class-based aspects to this amendment that have passed national attention aren’t passing the attention of Mississippi voters, and hopefully fear of this law will be enough to keep personhood for fertilized eggs from becoming law.  

Most of the national attention to this ballot initiative has focused on the potential effects it could have on access to abortion and birth control, as supporters of the personhood amendment erroneously claim that hormonal birth control works by killing fertilized eggs. (All forms, including emergency contraception, work by preventing ovulation.) These are very real concerns, of course, but not out of the ordinary for an anti-choice movement that spends most of its time trying to restrict access to contraception and abortion. The personhood represents an even more disturbing shift rightwards, because if it’s passed into law it will turn women of reproductive age into a criminally suspicious class whose privacy will be invaded and basic rights ignored, all with the pretense of protecting this new class of “persons”. If this law passes in Mississippi, women who have miscarriages could be facing the handcuffs, and pregnant women could very well lose basic freedoms to a state that uses the fetus in their bodies as an excuse to control them.  

And the women who will be most affected will be those who are already targeted routinely by law enforcement: poorer women, young women, and women of color.  

The campaign for the personhood amendment  fallaciously claims that they’re just trying to return Mississippi to a pre-Roe state, but this is simply and demonstrably untrue. Fertilized eggs didn’t have personhood status prior to 1973; bans on abortion and contraception were generally justified by the state arguing it had a right to control sexual morality, which is why the court decided Roe on the basis of sexual privacy rights. Under pre-Roe laws, doctors were mainly the ones prosecuted for providing abortion, but under personhood laws, a woman who procures an abortion has taken a hit out on a legal “person”, and can also be charged with a crime. At it’s foremost, this is about expanding the power of the state to throw women in jail for private medical choices.  

But there’s so much more at stake with this wild expansion of state control over women’s bodies. That’s why it’s ridiculous for personhood amendment supporters to wave off concerns that this law will lead to imprisoning women for miscarriages. If embryos count as “persons”, then it’s entirely possible and in fact likely that the state will start investigating women who miscarry.  Like Will Saletan writing for Slate notes

    A woman who suffers a miscarriage would be prosecuted not because she had a miscarriage, but because police and prosecutors suspect she might have had an abortion. You would certainly be investigated if your born child disappeared and you said it had died in an accident. 

But the law gets involved in the deaths of minors for more reasons than murder. An investigation into your miscarriage may clear you of deliberate abortion, but the detectives may turn up enough evidence to prosecute you for manslaughter due to neglect. Did you drink a beer? Did you decide to wait a couple months before starting your prenatal care? Did you eat soft cheeses or carnivorous fish, both of which are not recommended for pregnant women? Did you work a job that required you to lift heavy objects? Did you use cleaning products with strong chemicals in them? Live in an area heavy with pollution? Have sex while pregnant? All these may be cause for suspicion and maybe even charges if you miscarry. 

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