Extremism on the ballot

    The most tyrannical fringe of the anti-abortion movement seems poised to make history next Tuesday in Mississippi. It’s shaping up to be a bad day for women, but a great day for the right-wing extremists who relentlessly seek to impose their morality on the American mainstream.


    Perhaps you haven’t heard about Mississippi’s “personhood” referendum, a particularly nasty piece of business that would not only ban all abortions in all circumstances, but would also ban many forms of contraception (birth control pills, IUDs, the morning-after pill). It would even prohibit doctors from performing an abortion for the sole purpose of saving a woman’s life.  This referendum is so radical that traditional anti-abortion power groups, such as the National Right to Life Committee and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, adamantly refuse to support it. Even Mississippi’s anti-abortion Republican governor, Haley Barbour, says he’s hesitant to support it (“I am concerned about some of the ramifications”). And yet, by all accounts, the Mississippians who are most motivated to show up for an off-year election will likely OK it.The tyranny fringe is very ginned up about this, because a breakthrough Mississippi victory would encourage them to seek similar referenda – and thus invade the privacy of women, and terrorize their doctors – in other red states. Indeed, personhood measures are being mapped for 2012 in Alabama, Georgia, Nevada, Montana, and Florida. It doesn’t matter to these extremists that most people support birth control, nor does it matter that abortion is a constitutional right mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court. All that matters are God’s dictates, as they choose to define them; the rest of us are merely expected to knuckle under. As a spokesman for the personhood referendum recently remarked, the morning-after pill (an invaluable option for rape victims) is actually nothing more than a “human pesticide,” and no dissenting opinion need apply.The traditional anti-abortion movement says that a fetus is a person worthy of full legal rights. But the Mississippi measure, which is endorsed by the Christian American Family Association and the Family Research Council, goes much further. It decrees that a fertilized egg is a person worthy of full legal rights. That’s a big difference. If a fertilized egg is deemed to be a person, it means that any and all attempts to prevent its implantation in the uterus is tantamount to murder. Which would mean that anyone selling or using most forms of contraception is a murderer. As a personhood spokesman said on NPR, “Any birth control that ends the life of a human being will be impacted by this measure.”The ramifications of this measure would be obvious. For instance, some women suffer ectopic pregnancies, which occur when the fertilized egg gets stuck in a fallopian tube. Women can die in these circumstances, because the tube can rupture. Yet, under this extremist decree, doctors would be liable for prosecution on murder charges if they sought to save the woman’s life by removing the source of the rupture.Other ramifications would border on the comical. If fertilized eggs are legally defined as people, they could be counted as part of the population when state legislatures redraw the lines of congressional districts. Worse yet, all the laws that currently refer to “people” and “persons” could be seriously impacted. This is the kind of real-life stuff that the religious-right fringe doesn’t take into consideration when it seeks to impose its Godly vision. It’s no wonder that when the voters in Colorado were confronted with the first-ever personhood referendum, back in 2008, they rejected it by a margin of 40 percentage points.Most notably, the traditional anti-abortion groups oppose the personhood movement because they view it as tactically foolish. If the Mississippi referendum passes on Tuesday, it’s virtually inevitable that its critics will launch a court challenge. What anti-abortion leaders fear most is that the personhood fringe will foil their best efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade. They believe (rightly, I bet) that even this U.S. Supreme Court, with its conservative majority, would never uphold a radical measure that bans contraception and bans surgery that saves women’s lives. And by slapping down the Mississippi referendum, the court would essentially be validating Roe yet again. Groups such as National Right to Life understand that in order to effectively target Roe, it makes no sense to fire wildly and miss.  But extremists don’t think that way. Indeed, this referendum is a textbook example of how they operate. Overreach is what they do. Driven by the urge to impose their morality, they don’t know when to stop. It’s not in their nature to curb their zealotry, and, unfortunately, it appears that women of child-bearing age will pay the price.


    Anyone interested in the future of journalism? At a recent UPenn panel, I offered my faux wisdom about the unforeseeable. In addition, three smart people sitting with me sought to do the same. Here and here.——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal