The politics of "personhood" in Mississippi

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Tomorrow, voters in Mississippi will decide whether to give the designation "person" to a fertilized human egg. Initiative 26, the so-called "personhood initiative," is intended to make all abortion illegal in Mississippi, as well as some forms of birth control and some common practices used in infertility treatments.

So the usual abortion battle lines are drawn, right? Well, not quite. This is Mississippi - by some measures the most conservative state in the country - and the politics of personhood aren't that simple.

Take Drs. Eric Webb and Wayne Slocum. The obstetrician-gynecologists have staked out opposing positions on the issue. That despite being partners in a Tupelo medical practice.

Dr. Webb is an ardent opponent of abortion and an outspoken supporter of Initiative 26.

"It's a fact, not an opinion, that life begins at fertilization," said Dr. Webb.

Dr. Slocum, who serves in a leadership position in the Mississippi section of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, strongly opposes the initiative. The group has warned its members that Initiative 26 "will have a profound negative effect on our patient relationships for years to come."

"We are afraid that as physicians we could be liable either in criminal prosecution or possibly in liability prosecution," Dr. Slocum said.

Despite his opposition to the personhood initiative, Dr. Slocum describes himself as "pro-life," like Dr. Webb.

"I'm sure the national groups who are ready to fight the final battle over Roe v. Wade saw Mississippi as a venue to hit it out of the park," said Marty Wiseman, a professor of political science at Mississippi State University. By his estimate, 9 in 10 Mississippians would describe themselves as "pro-life."

But despite his anti-abortion views, Dr. Slocum does make exceptions in his own practice to terminate a pregnancy when the health of the mother is at risk. And he is concerned that Initiative 26 will restrict his ability to end pregnancies that will never result in live birth, as in the case of ectopic pregnancy. "If not, the mother can bleed to death or have dire consequences," he said.

(At left, Randall Pinkston reports on the Mississippi "personhood" vote for the CBS Evening News.)

Dr. Webb, the personhood supporter, rejects that argument. He said laws already in place in Mississippi will protect physicians who perform abortions to save the life of the mother. And that's important to Dr. Webb because the outspoken anti-abortion OB/GYN also terminates pregnancies - when it's medically necessary.

"In the case of ectopic pregnancy, I have acted to save the mother's life," he said.

Things have remained civil around the office. "Dr. Slocum and I are friends and partners," said Dr. Webb. "We've talked about this on many occasions. We agree to disagree that we don't have the same view on this."

Mississippi State University's Wiseman said that as of two weeks ago it looked like Initiative 26 would pass by a large margin, but he senses a shift in public opinion in recent days. He points to the influence of louder opposition from the medical establishment and reservations expressed by Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, though Barbour did vote absentee in favor of the initiative.

"Those who are providing encouragement nationally to pass this thing, I'm sure they think, 'If we can't get it passed anywhere else we know we can get it passed in Mississippi,'" Wiseman said. "This may prove to be a very big disappointment for them."

From the CBS Evening News: Mississippi votes: When does life begin?
Doctors call Mississippi "personhood" initiative dangerous

  • Rob Mank

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