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Embryo vote to refuel US abortion row before 2012 polls

Mississippi residents vote on a constitutional amendment stating that a fertilised human egg is a person, a controversial move likely to thrust the hot-button issue of abortion into the spotlight ahead of the 2012 elections.

world Updated: Nov 08, 2011 12:52 IST

Mississippi residents vote on a constitutional amendment on Tuesday stating that a fertilised human egg is a person, a controversial move likely to thrust the hot-button issue of abortion into the spotlight ahead of the 2012 elections.

The so-called "personhood amendment," which would confer rights on an embryo from the moment of conception, is similar to a measure that already has been rejected twice by voters in Colorado.

But it may have found fertile ground in conservative Mississippi, where it has garnered support from the state's Democratic and Republican candidates for governor, who are also bidding for election on Tuesday.

Voters will be choosing between Republican Phil Bryant and Democrat Johnny DuPree -- both of whom have come out in favor of the amendment.

If the measure is approved, it would mean that embryos in the Bible Belt state will be considered people with all the rights and protections that go along with the designation.

It also means that going forward, abortion would be against the law -- even in the case of rape and incest -- and other birth control methods could possibly be made illegal as well.

The measure to be voted on reads as follows: "Should the term 'person' be defined to include every human being from the moment of fertilisation, cloning, or the functional equivalent thereof?"

According to a new Public Policy Polling survey on Monday, 45% of Mississippi voters support the amendment, while 44 percent oppose it, the Politico website said.

The remaining 11% said they were undecided.

"Tomorrow we will win and by a huge difference in votes... because everybody knows, you learn it at high school biology, that human life begins when the sperm and the egg unite," insisted Patrick Vaughn, from the conservative American Family Association.

"Personhood" initiative supporters are preparing similar campaigns for the states of Florida, Ohio and South Dakota for the 2012 ballot.

"We will win in Mississippi and next year in Florida, Montana, South Dakota and Ohio," Gualberto Garcia Jones, a board member of Personhood USA, told AFP.

That means that states voting on similar measures could see an uptick in the numbers of Republican voters turning out at the polls, affecting local races and perhaps even the presidential vote.

The right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy has been law in the United States since the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling.

"Personhood is the key to all human rights," said Keith Mason, president of Personhood USA. "We believe that by legally changing the definition of what a person is, it can undermine Roe v. Wade and outlaw abortion."

Gary Bauer, a longtime conservative activist, said earlier this week that religious voters in the coming election have sizeable clout and their vote is likely to be strongly influenced by their beliefs.

"Millions of faith-based voters do vote on ideas like whether all of our children should be welcomed into the world (and) protected by the law," Bauer told CNN television on Sunday.

Bioethics and legal scholar Paul Lombardo, a professor at the University of Virginia and Georgia State University, said the "radical" Mississippi measure could have wide-ranging legal repercussions.

The amendment "would have an extraordinary impact on many features of the law, and it would also make things like birth control potentially criminal, not to speak of other things like any kind of fertility treatment," he told AFP.

Lynn Paltrow, who heads a group called National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW), says that, if enacted, the measure "is likely to hurt all pregnant women" by denying their "constitutional personhood."

"It's turning pregnant women into a different class of person," she wrote.

Jessica Valenti, the founder of the liberal website Feministing.com, wrote that people "who attack reproductive rights are turning a blind eye to the impossible choices families have to make together, instead callously insisting that it's lawmakers who know what's best for women, not women themselves.

"How long will it be before pregnant women are arrested for not taking their prenatal vitamins or for not exercising enough, or too much?" Valenti wrote in a recent Washington Post opinion column.

Lombardo said the amendment raises several thorny legal questions and enormous legal problems if the embryo has equal rights to its mother.

"If a woman goes horseback riding and has a miscarriage as a result a couple of weeks later, does that mean she can be held up for homicide? There are all kinds of examples like that, having real impact in law and the kind of control it would allow a state to exert over women."