Mississippians vote on whether a zygote is a person

From CNN News comes this bizarre event: Mississippi will hold a referendum to determine whether voters think that “personhood” begins with conception.

 Voters in Mississippi will be given a chance to decide whether life begins at conception, a controversial abortion-related ballot initiative that the state’s highest court has refused to block.

The Mississippi Supreme Court late Thursday allowed Measure 26, also known as the Personhood Amendment, to appear on the state ballot November 8. The decision was a rejection of a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and abortion-rights groups.

The 7-2 ruling said those groups had not met the legal burden required to restrict the right of citizens to amend the state constitution. . .

. . . Anti-abortion forces hope the amendment, if passed, would ultimately be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, providing another opportunity for the justices to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion.

Here’s a screenshot of the proposed state constitutional amendment from an anti-abortion site:

I recognize that for many abortion is not a clear-cut issue, and there is controversy about the stage at which aborting a fetus should be considered illegal or immoral. Some, like Peter Singer, even think that some euthanasia of severely afflicted or doomed newborns might be permitted, and I can see the validity of that view as well.

At any rate, according to a 2006 survey by the Guttmacher Institute, only 1.5% of abortions in America involve fetuses older than 21 weeks, the age at which the fetus is usually considered viable, 3.8% occur between 16 and 20 weeks, and fully 61.8% occur at less than nine weeks.  And since I grew up in the sixties and seventies, when there was lots of sex and drug-induced coupling, ergo many abortions, I know that women don’t take the procedure lightly, and hardly regard it (as many religious people seem to do) as a form of birth control.

Clearly, an 100-cell blastocyst does not have any feelings or thoughts (much less a soul), and to deem that ball of cells equivalent to an adult human being elides some very serious differences involving sentience. A blastocyst is no more what we think of as a “person” than an acorn is the same thing as an oak tree.  And this doesn’t even take into consideration the widespread view that abortion is a private matter involving the wishes of the parents, the fact that women will seek out abortions whether or not they’re illegal (thousands of Irish women, for example, fly to England every year for abortions), and the possibility that the production of unwanted children may be bad for both those children and society.

Further, if a fetus at any state is deemed a “person,” then abortion becomes equivalent to murder.

Now there are nonreligious objections to abortion, but clearly much of this “personhood” kerfuffle derives from religion and its attendant concept of a soul.  That of course is why these initiatives often originate in conservative areas of the U.S., and why nonreligious countries, like those in Western Europe, allow legal abortions. In the largely Catholic Republic of Ireland, abortion is totally illegal unless a birth would endanger the life of the mother.

It seems to me that although America is a democracy, it’s dicey to leave the definition of “personhood” up to the voters rather than the judiciary (but please, not this Supreme Court!).  Please weigh in below with your thoughts on the issue, especially if you’re a woman, the sex on whom the onus for abortion falls most often.

h/t: Diane G


  1. Sean
    Posted September 10, 2011 at 4:03 pm | Permalink


    Gratuitous references to Nazism add nothing to the discussion, and serve only to prove Godwin’s Law

    • Ichthyic
      Posted September 10, 2011 at 4:08 pm | Permalink


  2. Sean
    Posted September 10, 2011 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    If your objection is, as you claim, to these kinds of referenda, the reference to Nazism is a total non-sequitur (since when was the Nazis’ main problem that they were too democratic?).

    • Ichthyic
      Posted September 10, 2011 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

      actually, you really don’t understand what was occurring during the rise of Nazism in Germany then.

      In fact, voter participation in Germany was around 90% from the early 1900s on to the late 30s.

      suggest you read some of the actual history of this time period.

      Richard J Evans stuff is good.

      eery parallels.

  3. MadScientist
    Posted September 10, 2011 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    ” … that the state’s highest court has refused to block”

    I’d just like to say that the statement is misleading. The courts have no jurisdiction in that matter – they cannot block the referendum (no matter how stupid) even if all the judges wanted to. What the courts *can* do is act on motions after a law has been passed and strike out a law.

    • Ichthyic
      Posted September 10, 2011 at 4:48 pm | Permalink


      the referendum process in most states in the US is entirely broken.

      I saw it abused countless times in CA over the last 30 years.

      • Posted September 10, 2011 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

        It’s frequently abused in Washington state, too, which makes each election season extra frustrating. State ballot initiatives and referenda should never have been instituted. The U.S. isn’t a direct democracy. Putting civil rights up for a public vote is extremely dangerous and can easily lead to a “tyranny of the majority”-esque situation. Ugh.

  4. Posted September 10, 2011 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    Here’s another quote from the CNN report:

    “Although our opponents were beaten in this lawsuit, we know that they will not stop in their desperate attempts to deny the obvious truth that life begins at conception and that every life deserves to be protected in the law,” said Steve Crampton, general counsel of the conservative legal group Liberty Counsel. “Not only Mississippians, but all Americans, should support this commonsense amendment.”

    Every life deserves to be protected in the law? I challenge the Liberty Counsel (which apparently doesn’t care about the liberties of pregnant women) to provide an empirical criterion for “personhood” that applies to human zygotes but not to insects.

    Where do you think the Liberty Counsel got the idea that zygotes are persons? Is it a result of extensive research in embryology and neuroscience and psychology? Hint: the Liberty Counsel’s board of directors has adopted a “Christian doctrinal statement”…

    (I’ve written about this here.)

  5. E.A. Blair
    Posted September 10, 2011 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    I submit that my cats should be eligible for personhood, as they are far more sentient than a zygote.

    This is the same tired argumentum ad populum that rightwingers use to criticize climate change. “If enough people say it is so, than it is so.”

  6. raven
    Posted September 10, 2011 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    If a zygote is a person, then god is the biggest murderer around.

    As others have noted, the rate of spontaneous miscarriage is ca. 50%.

    So are they going to define god by a vote as the “Cosmic Baby Killer”. That is what that vote would mean to fundie xians.


    One fact sheet from the University of Ottawa states, “The incidence of spontaneous abortion is estimated to be 50% of all pregnancies, based on the assumption that many pregnancies abort spontaneously with no clinical recognition.”[54]The NIH reports, “It is estimated that up to half of all fertilized eggs die and are lost (aborted) spontaneously, usually before the woman knows she is pregnant.

  7. raven
    Posted September 10, 2011 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

    FWIW, in other states these xian death cult personhood amendments have been tried before.

    IIRC, both South Dakota and Colorado voted them down.

    Mississippi, well who knows? It’s not like I would dare get within a 1,000 miles of the place.

  8. BeardedDragon
    Posted September 10, 2011 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

    IMO, this will get shot down. If a fertilized egg is a person then terminating its life is murder. This, by definition, would make the pill illegal because it doesn’t always prevent fertilization. No way the majority on the USSC upholds that. Kennedy won’t go that far and would vote with the liberals on the court if the case makes it that far. It will probably get shot down before it gets that far though.

  9. Diane G.
    Posted September 11, 2011 at 2:56 am | Permalink


  10. Jimtanker
    Posted September 11, 2011 at 3:44 am | Permalink

    My question would be whether or not you could take out a life insurance policy on a zygote and if it there is a miscarriage can you collect on it?

    • Rosmary LYNDALL WEMM
      Posted September 11, 2011 at 11:15 am | Permalink

      Good question. What happens if the insurance company refuses to accept the State’s ruling that it is a “person”? Is this legal? Is it discrimination? What will happen to the cost of life insurance premiums?

  11. Rosmary LYNDALL WEMM
    Posted September 11, 2011 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    A huge percentage of fertilized eggs fail to attach to the womb wall and are “naturally” aborted. Women are rarely aware that they were ever pregnant.

    If this bunch of cells is considered a “person” then this would mean that the contents of every woman’s period must be scrutinized in order to detect non-implanted, people. Then what? If the contents are still alive must they be implanted in some other womb? incubated in a test tube before transplanting elsewhere? If the person is dead should they be issued with a death certificate and buried? Should the woman be charged with man- or person-slaughter? Should members of the woman’s household be charged with assisting the killing of a person?
    Since there is no limitation on the crime of murder of a person, does this mean that all people who admit to having an abortion by charged with murder and removed from whatever family they are trying to care for and look after? Should the woman’s partner and family be charged as accessories to murder?

  12. Dale Headley
    Posted September 11, 2011 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    How about voters deciding whether evolution is true or not? How about gravity? Next thing you know, the mouth-breathers of Mississippi will get to vote on whether or not black people are the equal of white people. I would love to see the results of that.

  13. raven
    Posted September 11, 2011 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Y’all are missing the important point.

    Half of all pregnancies end in miscarriage. Which means there is a zygote or embryo dead somewhere.

    If they attain personhood, aren’t they supposed to have a death certificate? Plus a funeral and burial or cremation.

    I’m sure Mississippi will be the go to place for miscarried zygote and fetus cemeteries.

    Odd fact, under this Mississippi law, half of the “people” that die there will show “god” as the cause of death. Whatever, he’s always been known as a homicidal Sky Monster.

    • E.A. Blair
      Posted September 11, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

      If you want a loog at just how “pro-life” gid is, just go here.

      • E.A. Blair
        Posted September 11, 2011 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

        Oops – typo – “look”

        • E.A. Blair
          Posted September 11, 2011 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

          and “god”

      • Diane G.
        Posted September 12, 2011 at 3:07 am | Permalink

        Great link, E. A.!

  14. Posted September 11, 2011 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    The simple question is does the woman carrying the fertilized egg get to make her own decisions.

    Many say no. The man who made her pregnant and the state should force her to do what it wants.

    Pretty clear difference.

  15. Posted September 12, 2011 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    The men lose to, as do all sons, for example, if women are treated as chattel. But it is a great sales “hook” if you want to get votes.

    People always vote against their self interest.

    There is also research that childhood infections hurt early brain development and thus lowers IQ. Miss. is one of the worst states for this in the US.

  16. Posted September 12, 2011 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    Many humans have had their genomes sequenced. It has become clear that it’s only a matter of time and technology before a human clone can be made from such a genome — or even from a new, synthetic genome inspired by one or more human ones.

    Is it murder to delete a disk copy of such a genome? It has the potential to become fully human, after all. And what of the in-memory copies that computers are always creating and destroying as they manipulate data?

    For that matter, what of shaving? All those lost skin cells and many blood cells would be even easier to turn into another human. Brushing your teeth may be even worse — you’re taking multiple cheek swab samples and spitting them down the drain.

    No, no matter what kind of squeamishness one may feel on the matter, the decision is one that only the woman can make. Hopefully, it gets made with the supportive guidance of close family, friends, and medical professionals — but that’s no different from any other elective surgical procedure.



    • ritebrother
      Posted September 12, 2011 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

      I’m sure the Venter Institute is on the case. They’ve already generated a Mycoplasma strain from a fully synthesized genome. Granted, it’s only a few hundred genes, but a proof of principle, so your question regarding in silico genomes is relevant.

  17. Iris
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

    While I am not advocating anti-abortion, the picture uses false analogies. Silkworm cocoon and dress is quite different from zygote and person.

  18. S A GOULD
    Posted December 7, 2011 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    Make it so MEN actually bear equal responsibility for conception, then we might get somewhere. Until then, ALL of these laws are anti-women.

    • Microraptor
      Posted December 7, 2011 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

      But, that’d be like totally playing Gawd, dude. Cause if Gawd wanted men to have babies he’d have totally like designed them that way.

      • S A GOULD
        Posted December 7, 2011 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

        What was I thinking!

3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] is her story out, and the man who abused her has been sentenced to prison for 20 to 30 years. Jerry wants to have people’s reflections on the issue, but in particular, what women – who stand to lose most by this bit of electioneering [...]

  2. [...] Mis­sis­sip­pi­ans vote on whether a zygote is a per­son (whyevo​lu​tion​istrue​.word​press​.com) [...]

  3. [...] [...]

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