After "personhood" defeat in Mississippi, abortion activists on both sides eye 2012

Christi Chandler, left, and Stacy Hawsey, both of Madison and supporters of the Personhood Amendment promote their initiative as they waver signs at drivers in the midst of last minute campaigning Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2011 in Madison, Miss. The Mississippi measure that would define life as beginning at conception was given a decent chance of approval. Passage would be the first victory in the country for the so-called personhood movement, which aims to make abortion all but illegal. Similar attempts have failed in Colorado and are under way elsewhere. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis) (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Christi Chandler, left, and Stacy Hawsey, both of Madison and supporters of the Personhood Amendment promote their initiative as they waver signs at drivers in the midst of last minute campaigning Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2011 in Madison, Miss. The Mississippi measure that would define life as beginning at conception was given a decent chance of approval. Passage would be the first victory in the country for the so-called personhood movement, which aims to make abortion all but illegal. Similar attempts have failed in Colorado and are under way elsewhere.
Christi Chandler, left, and Stacy Hawsey, both of Madison and supporters of the Personhood Amendment promote their initiative as they waver signs at drivers in the midst of last minute campaigning, Nov. 8, 2011 in Madison, Miss.
(AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
After the resounding defeat last week of the so-called "personhood" initiative in Mississippi, both sides of the abortion debate are looking to the 2012 elections to advance their cause with voters.

Personhood USA, the national group behind the effort to outlaw abortion by having a fertilized human egg declared a "person," is working to get the issue on the ballot in at least six states for the voting next fall.

"We're already collecting signatures in Oregon, Montana and Florida for 2012," said spokeswoman Jennifer Mason. In addition to those states, she said they have contacted state officials in Ohio, California and Nevada to begin the ballot initiative process. And she said they are eyeing another attempt in Colorado, where they have failed twice before.

While the loss in Mississippi was a setback, Mason said the high profile fight in the off-year election has galvanized opponents of abortion. She said Personhood USA offices were flooded by hundreds if not thousands of calls from supporters across the country in the hours after the defeat in Mississippi.

"This has served as a catalyst for 'personhood,'" she said. "We've already seen an explosion of interest and involvement across the nation."

Abortion rights supporters have also set their sights on 2012.

"They're not going to give up," said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, of the "personhood" backers. "We're going to continue to have to have the conversation with Americans about who is best suited to make this decision - a woman and her family or a politician."

That fight may not be as hard as abortion rights supporters portray it. University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said the large margin by which the "personhood" initiative was defeated in deep-red Mississippi is an indication of the difficulty its backers face elsewhere.

"I think what it tells us is even in a very conservative state you can go too far," Sabato said.

But actually passing "personhood" initiatives may not be the big story for the abortion fight in the 2012 election; driving turnout may be more important.

"It will draw a lot of attention in 2012 because abortion is always a hot button issue for social conservatives," said David Menefee-Libey, professor of politics at Pomona College in Claremont, California.

Menefee-Libey pointed to Florida, Ohio and Nevada as battleground states where anti-abortion initiatives could increase turnout and have an effect on the presidential contest. He said that could be particularly important to Republicans if they choose Mitt Romney as their standard-bearer.

"Putting an abortion issue on the ballot may provide further motivation for those social conservatives to turn out if there is a presidential nominee that they don't find overwhelmingly thrilling," Menefee-Libey said.

Democrats have seized on comments by Romney in which he affirms his support for the idea that life begins at conception, perhaps an indication they see it as winning issue for 2012.

Nancy Keenan said NARAL Pro-Choice America and its allies will spend the 2012 election cycle drawing attention to abortion rights. She said in addition to fighting "personhood," they will be focused on re-electing President Obama. "It's very important that Americans understand how important it is to have a pro-choice president," she said.

Indeed, following the "personhood" defeat in Mississippi, the White House made a point of hailing it as a victory for women and families.

"The president believes that extreme amendments like this would do real damage to a woman's constitutional right to make her own health care decisions, including some very personal decisions on contraception and family planning," White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a statement.

Larry Jacobs, professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, said if "personhood" gets on the ballot in a half-dozen or more states in 2012, it could drive turnout in a way that bucks conventional wisdom.

"Usually we think of these constitutional amendments on social issues as playing best to the Republican base by turning out social conservatives," Jacobs said. But with so many liberals and Democratic base voters disaffected, he said, a social issue like abortion could drive turnout among Obama supporters more than among Republicans who already seemed to be primed to show up on Election Day.

"Obama and Democrats can't win in places like Florida and Nevada unless they get tremendous turnout of the sort they got in 2008," Jacobs said. "This amendment may help them."

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  • Rob Mank

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