Defeating Personhood: A Critical But Incomplete Victory for Reproductive Justice

The defeat of Mississippi Initiative 26 may in the long run be seen as a Pyrrhic victory, given the ominous implications of Initiative 27 and voter IDs.

See all our coverage of the Mississippi Egg-As-Person Defeat here, our coverage of Mississippi Initiative (Prop) 26 here, and our coverage of egg-as-person initiatives here.

The headlines all say it—“Personhood defeated in Mississippi!” This was a tremendous victory for the pro-choice movement that started campaigning on the ground only September 8, years after proponents of the “Yes on 26” ballot initiative flooded the state with a superbly orchestrated campaign that included well-financed organizing and petition drives. As of this writing, 55 percent of the voters rejected this dangerous, precedent-setting initiative that would have declared a fertilized egg a “person” and outlawed most contraception, in vitro fertilization, and would have criminalized abortion—even in cases of rape and incest. These dangerous, unintended consequences even persuaded conservative voters to defeat the initiative, splitting the traditionally unified anti-abortion base.

Mississippi was a peoples’ victory, a triumph in which people of all backgrounds, races, professions and religions came together. Congratulations are definitely in order for the tireless activists in the state, and for those professional campaigners who came from out-of-state to direct the No on 26 campaign, led by Mississippians for Healthy Families. The grassroots efforts of many courageous Mississippi activists demonstrated that over-reaching zealots who do not care about women’s lives could be rebuffed even in the reddest, most religious, conservative state in the South. The professional campaign strategists were right—targeting their efforts at conservatives and independents by magnifying the anti-government sentiments in the state that are a holdover from the Civil Rights movement and the more recent stoking by the Tea Party.

The supporters of the personhood initiative could not hoodwink people in Mississippi because great folks like Valencia Robinson of SisterSong and Allison Korn of National Advocates for Pregnant Women threw their hearts into the campaign, knowing that Mississippi does not have the comparable pro-choice infrastructure that states like New York, California, and even Colorado have. It was a great success for the pro-choice movement and sets radical anti-abortionists back on their heels, after the millions of dollars they invested in the state.

It was not, however, a total victory for the Reproductive Justice movement. At the same time, Mississippi voters approved Initiative 27, a Voter ID exclusion initiative requiring government-issued identification in order to vote, a direct threat to the Voting Rights Act. Even on November 7, some Black voters were questioned about their ID and their right to vote. One poll worker asked Michelle Colon, a grassroots activist, why she did not recognize her when Michelle voted at the same precinct she had used for seven years. The same voters who elected a Republican governor and supported Voter ID broke ranks and rejected the Personhood Initiative. What this means for future elections is ominous and should be carefully analyzed.

Millions of dollars of staff and resources poured into Mississippi from around the country to defeat 26, the personhood initiative. What if those same resources had been equally devoted to defeating 27, the Voter ID initiative? We may never know the answer to that question.

What if campaigners had listened to Mississippi activists, done polling, created commercials, distributed comparable campaign literature, and put an equal amount of lift under the 27 initiative as we did on 26? Could we have saved the right to vote in Mississippi at the same time we saved (at least temporarily) the right to obtain an abortion?

Through a Reproductive Justice lens, Mississippi was a mixed bag for human rights activists who manage to care about other issues in addition to abortion politics. We have to ask why weren’t millions of dollars in resources poured into the state to stop the Voter ID initiative, which will disenfranchise thousands of African Americans, immigrants, married women, transgender people, and Native Americans. We have to ask why it took so long for our side to start mobilizing on the ground, only establishing a campaign office less than two months before the election. We have to ask why was the name of the Black candidate for governor, Johnny Dupree, not on the electronic ballots at some precincts. Mostly, we have to ask why opponents of the Personhood Initiative did not see the link between that and the Voter ID exclusion initiative that jeopardizes the prospects for women in Mississippi continuing to have access to abortions and contraceptives in the state.

Because we could have won on both.

I do not have yet have the data on voting by race so I don’t know if the overwhelmingly Democratic African American electorate made a difference on 26, but I suspect it did. If they did vote against the Personhood initiative as they had been urged to do, thanks are owed to them from women around the country for whom Mississippi was our Maginot Line.

What this will mean for the future in Mississippi may be predictable. The anti-abortion movement will probably try to achieve the same personhood goal legislatively that they tried at the ballot box. Given the preponderance of anti-abortion legislators in the state (with more to come with voter ID exclusions), they may have a better chance of persuading the legislature to pass yet another bill restricting abortion. The state already has a forced 24-hour waiting period, compulsory sonograms, and only one abortion clinic to which an out-of-state doctor has to fly to deliver services.

The pro-choice movement will, of course, fight them every step of the way. One of the more positive legacies from the Initiative 26 fight will be an energized and mobilized grassroots movement in the state available to continue to wage the just war against these opponents of women’s human rights. Bridges have been built across race, gender and class in defense of abortion rights and these bridges, if nurtured, can pay off in the end to counter future anti-woman measures.

Even as we celebrate, we have to watch other states for similar personhood efforts. The list is daunting—Florida, Montana, Ohio, California, Oregon, South Dakota, Michigan, Nevada, Georgia, and Wisconsin have been mentioned in media reports speculating about future threats. These radical campaigns will vacuum up our limited resources in an ongoing war of attrition sadly too familiar to us.

What this will mean for voting rights champions is less clear. Already, Mississippi community activists are working to determine precisely what types of government-issued identification will be demanded when people go to the polls in 2012. They are assisting people in obtaining such ID, where possible, and considering legal challenges when people are denied the right to vote. They are under-funded and working beneath the media’s radar, but they are determined to not stop fighting for the right to vote in Mississippi. They have never stopped and will never give up, never give in.

By today, most of the out-of-town folks will be catching flights home, celebrating their tremendous victory, and catching up on much-needed sleep. This is a great day for those of us who fight for abortion rights. If I blink fast and hold my nose for a moment, I can briefly forget that we have won the battle, not the war.