'Personhood' laws threaten US abortion rights

Print
ImageThe Personhood Movement, which seeks to declare life as beginning at the point of the egg’s fertilisation, is a growing force in US anti-choice politics.

Most recently embodied by Mississippi's Amendment 26, the initiative is expected to vociferously spread to Ohio, Florida, Montana, Oregon and Colorado (where similar legislation has failed twice before).

The amendment will be put directly to Mississippi voters on November 8th. Anti-abortion organisations feel confident that the initiative will succeed in a state that has some of the toughest abortion regulations in the country; including parental or judicial consent for any minor to get an abortion and mandatory in-person counselling and a 24-hour wait before any woman can terminate a pregnancy. Also, there is only a single clinic where the procedures are performed in the state, which is roughly the size of England.

The Mississippi State Medical Association says that it is not supporting the initiative, but is not actively opposing it either. In a letter to members, the group’s president stated “I agree with the sentiments of this movement; but I can’t agree with throwing a physician into a system where the decision will not be malpractice, but wrongful death or murder.”

If the initiative is passed the repercussions could be far-reaching and affect other aspects of women’s reproductive health and choice. The amendment could ban forms of birth control such as the IUD and the morning after pill and might limit physicians’ willingness to perform in vitro fertilisation as well as some of the options for embryo storage and use. It could also limit stem-cell research in the state.  

George Cochran, a University of Mississippi constitutional law professor, said even if Mississippi voters adopt the initiative, he believes it’s unlikely to ever be enforced because it is certain to be challenged and overturned in court.

“Suits are brought, they have it declared unconstitutional, Cochran said. “It’s not very difficult.”

Cochran said there's a 5-4 majority on the U.S. Supreme Court now to uphold Roe v. Wade. That and other Supreme Court rulings have required states to allow abortions up to the point that a fetus could survive outside of the womb — approximately 24 weeks.

The current fallout being seen in Indiana, however, underscores the danger of lawmakers substituting their knowledge about reproductive health for that of medical professionals. Doctors at two major hospitals in Indianapolis have stopped performing abortions, even for women with serious health risks, because of concerns over the new state law aimed at de-funding Planned Parenthood (a pro-choice, reproductive health organisation). While awaiting court intervention to overturn the law, which several constitutional law experts have called unconstitutional, doctors at Indiana University and Wishard Memorial hospitals have stopped offering abortions.

Republican state Senator Scott Schieder, who sponsored the law, says that the law which withdraws all Medicaid funding from abortion providers and abortion providing organisations isn’t intended to prevent abortions in hospitals if the woman’s life was in danger or the fetus had no chance to survive.

However, while the law does exempts hospitals from the possible loss of Medicaid funding, it does not exempt doctors in private practice. Because the doctors at these two hospitals are part of a private practice and not technically employed by the hospitals; and the language of the legislation does not adequately address the private/public sharing of doctors, they have chosen to stop performing the procedures. According to Wishard obstetrics chief Elizabeth Ferries-Rowe, the new law ties the hands of doctors trying to provide appropriate care.

So while Dr. Cochran may be correct in his assertion that Amendment 26 will not stand up in a Supreme Court case, the short-term damage could be considerable.

Further reading on Amendment 26 here and here.