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Mississippi votes against embryos’ human rights, but national debate continues

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Yesterday, Mississippi voters headed to the polls to weigh in on a highly controversial ballot initiative that would give embryos in that state ‘personhood’ status, and wreak havoc on reproductive therapy and research in the process. Despite the fact that the constitutional amendment, known as Initiative 26, was supported by Republican and Democrat candidates for Mississippi Governor as well as the state’s Attorney General Jim Hood, it ultimately failed as 58% of the voters rejected it.

The ballot initiative came out of an ongoing nation-wide campaign launched by Personhood USA, a Colorado-based Christian non-profit.

Many doctors in Mississippi are letting out a collective sigh of relief. Had this initiative passed, every fertilized human egg would have become a ‘person’ protected under US law. This would have subsequently made abortion illegal and restricted use of birth control pills and fertility treatments such as in vitro fertilization, in which embryos are sometimes destroyed.

Initiative 26 could have also affected the state’s embryonic stem cell research. “Any stem cell research that leads to destruction of the pre-embryonic person would have been problematic,” says Jonathan Will, director of the Bioethics and Health Law Center at Mississippi College in the state capital, Jackson.

Even though the initiative failed, some still worry that it might have a snowball impact in areas of the country with more high-profile stem cell research communities. “I don’t know that there’s a huge amount of stem cell research going on in Mississippi,” says bioethicist Ron Green of Dartmouth College, in Hanover, New Hampshire. But if this legislation were to encourage other, larger states to go down the same road, “the implications are going to be somewhat chilling,” Green says.

This possibility is not far from the truth—activists are working to get personhood initiatives on the ballots of seven states in the 2012 election, including Oregon, Florida, Ohio, Nebraska, Montana, Alabama and Kansas. “If you extend this to states like Oregon and Florida, it would put a halt to the development of new stem cell lines by any of the standard methods which are now permissible under the Obama Administration’s policies,” Green says.

According to Will, the debate has been raging for years and Personhood USA who is “very vocal” will continue to lobby for its cause. “This issue is not going away,” Will says.

Image by Shawn Rossi via Flickr Creative Commons

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