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Mississippi amendment on 'personhood' divides Christians

By Rich Phillips, CNN
updated 3:09 PM EST, Mon November 7, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • An amendment to the Mississippi constitution could restrict in vitro fertilization
  • Robin and Emily Carpenter, who have used in vitro fertilization, oppose the measure
  • The amendment leaves "too much gray area," Emily Carpenter says
  • "I can't imagine anyone who is truly pro-life not supporting" it, a backer says

Columbus, Mississippi (CNN) -- In the Carpenter home, every meal begins with a prayer. Robin and his wife, Emily, are devout Christians. But they part ways with many other Christians over a measure that would expand the legal definition of human life.

Their son, Luke, now 4 years old, was born through in vitro fertilization.

The anti-abortion amendment being voted on this week in the state could restrict in vitro procedures, and the Carpenters are worried that if they wait too long to add to their family, they may end up breaking the law.

"I don't really want or need anybody else getting involved in trying to limit how that works for us, or stopping it," said Robin Carpenter. "We need to have the same rights to have a family as anybody else does."

The Carpenters fear that if Mississippi Amendment 26 passes on Tuesday, their whole future will change.

The controversial measure, known as "Personhood," will ask Mississippians to amend the state constitution to define life as beginning at conception, which would eliminate abortion, including in the cases of women who are the victims of rape and incest. The law would also outlaw certain forms of birth control and the destruction of embryos in laboratories -- which puts in vitro fertilization procedures in question because it results in unused fertilized eggs.

"The amendment is simple," said Dr. Freda Bush, a Mississippi obstetrician and strong supporter of the measure.

"I can't imagine anyone who is truly pro-life not supporting or acknowledging the fact that the baby begins at conception, deserves life, has done nothing to deserve death, she told CNN.

"In rape and incest, the life that has been created during that process has done nothing to deserve death. The mother is a victim and there's no reason to make a victim a murderer," she said.

But while the Carpenters consider themselves pro-life, they say their personal situation can't bring them to support this amendment. They've decided to move up their next In vitro fertilization procedure.

"We're trying to hurry up and get it started before all of this takes place," Emily Carpenter said.

In vitro fertilization has "helped our family grow, and that's what we want as parents. We don't want anybody to limit our ability to have children," she said.

If it passes, the amendment would take effect before the end of the year.

And although the amendment's wording is simple, what has the Carpenters and others worried is that it would compel the Mississippi legislature to develop the rules and laws to enforce the amendment.

"I think it's the whole wording of the amendment. There's too much gray area to vote for it, said Emily Carpenter. "You can't trust what their intentions are if they don't state it."

Representatives in the Yes on 26 movement say that anyone who considers themselves to be pro-life should be supporting the amendment.

"Embryologists, medical doctors, lawyers are going to have to inform our representatives to help them develop the law," said Bush, a Yes on 26 spokeswoman.

"This is a principle. ... All of those other details can be worked out," she said.

Experts and state officials say that if the amendment passes, the court battles to stop it will soon begin.

"Clearly we would anticipate there would be a litigation challenge on this issue and the legislature would have to fill in all of the blanks for this as we go forward," said Mississippi's secretary of state, Delbert Hosemann.

"The constitution is a working document, so this would have a number of different issues that would have to be addressed," he said.

It's that lack of specifics that has many people upset. Many worry about voting for an amendment without knowing the exact medical, moral, legal and criminal implications.

Diane Derzis, who runs Mississippi's only abortion clinic, said most people don't understand how far-reaching the amendment could be.

"By this very definition of this bill, a fertilized egg is a person, so that does away with the IUD and most forms of birth control," she said. "For a woman who has a miscarriage -- is she going to be investigated? I mean, this may sound like the Twilight Zone, but this is where we are with this stuff."

Supporters of the amendment dismiss such speculation as scare tactics.

The ballot initiative is part of a national campaign brought by Personhood USA. Mississippi is the only state voting on a personhood initiative this year, but similar measures have been defeated in Colorado. Other personhood initiatives are being planned next year in Florida, Montana and Ohio, according to supporters. Efforts in at least five other states are in the planning stages.

Personhood USA, a Colorado-based group, describes itself as a nonprofit Christian ministry that "serves the pro-life community by assisting local groups to initiate citizen, legislative, and political action focusing on the ultimate goal of the pro-life movement: personhood rights for all innocent humans."

The idea for personhood was born during Roe v. Wade's oral arguments, when Justice Potter Stewart said, "If it were established that an unborn fetus is a person, you would have an impossible case here." Now, Personhood USA is trying to use the amendment to establish "personhood" as a direct challenge to the Roe v. Wade ruling.

Legal experts say Mississippi is a good place for the movement to make that challenge.

"It's a religious issue in a very conservative state," said W. Martin Wiseman, director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University.

"The national movement that's ready to fight the final battle over Roe v Wade could not have picked a better state," he said.

But for the Carpenter family -- despite their pro-life beliefs -- voting for this amendment is just not something they can live with. Their in vitro fertilization attempts to have a brother or sister for their son, Luke, will soon begin. They fear that under the amendment, they could be labeled as murderers if their fertilized eggs die.

"It is a concern, but a bigger concern for us is to not be able to have children," said Robin Carpenter. "If it means that I'm labeled a murderer, but I am able to have children, it's a risk that we'll definitely take."

CNN's Mallory Simon contributed to this report.

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