Personhood Redux: Alabama Tweaks Failed Mississippi Amendment

November 11, 2011 9:39 am ET — Kate Conway

One day after a Mississippi ballot initiative to define "personhood" from the moment of fertilization was voted down by more than 55 percent of the state's population, the Associated Press reported that state officials in Alabama are readying a similar voter referendum:

Republican Sen. Phil Williams of Rainbow City has already prepared legislation for the session starting Feb. 7 to put a constitutional amendment to voters that would effectively ban abortion. His bill says "persons" in all Alabama laws shall "include any human being from fertilization and implantation in the womb."

The amendment is nearly as radical as the Mississippi version. Like its failed predecessor, the Alabama measure could ban emergency contraception, and it contains no exceptions for rape or incest. But there's a key difference in the Alabama wording — the specification that personhood is attained after implantation, not just fertilization — which has provoked a discussion that's telling of the objectives and the radicalism of the people behind the official personhood movement.

Abortion opponents are divided over the wording. Personhood USA, the group behind Mississippi's constitutional amendment, says the Alabama proposal is too weak, and Alabama need's [sic] to use only "fertilization" like Mississippi's proposal did.

Proponents of the Alabama bill say they included implantation to avoid legal questions about in vitro fertilization, which helped defeat Mississippi's proposed constitutional amendment.

On Wednesday, Republican Rep. John Merrill of Tuscaloosa recalled a frank conversation with leaders of Personhood USA.

"They said they'd rather not have anything than have this. I said, 'You don't understand. You've got nothing now,' " he said.

It's only after implantation that the cells of a fertilized egg begin to differentiate themselves into anything that resembles the parts of a person (skin, bones, organs, etc.). Specifying the moment of personhood as implantation is a small concession for those who would like to see a total ban on abortion, and one that probably won't cause too many non-fanatical pro-life citizens to lose a lot of sleep. It could assuage the concerns of pro-life voters who don't want to hinder those seeking to conceive through in vitro fertilization. For Personhood USA to reject what would be a monumental gain for the anti-reproductive rights cause on these grounds is truly radical.

The extremity of this position points to an underlying motivation of the movement: to wrest women's control of their fertility out of their hands by banning birth control. While that may seem far-fetched — few pro-life people categorically oppose birth control — perhaps reframing the debate so that proponents of reproductive rights find themselves scrambling to defend birth control is a clever way to divert time and resources away from the fight to preserve women's Supreme Court-upheld right to an abortion. After all, Planned Parenthood, usually the primary target of the anti-abortion crowd's wrath, has recently found itself embroiled in legal and PR battles to maintain federal funding for things like birth control pills but that by law can't pay for abortions.

As Salon's Irin Carmon writes, "Personhood could represent the most audaciously successful reframing of the national abortion debate yet — in which pro-choicers have to fight over whether forms of birth control are abortion, as opposed to ensuring a woman's right and access to reproductive choice."