Mississippi and the abortion rights powder keg

at 01:06 PM ET, 11/07/2011

The GOP presidential race thus far has been about the economy, the economy and the economy, with occasional diversions on issues like health care, illegal immigration and now sexual harassment allegations (see today’s surprise Herman Cain presser).

And despite the GOP’s best efforts to keep the debate focused on the economy — and President Obama’s failings therein — it may be headed for the biggest diversion yet.

Abortion.


Dr. Beverly McMillan, president of Pro-Life Mississippi, left, thanks supporters at a prayer rally in Jackson, Miss., last June for their support on efforts to get a proposed "personhood" constitutional amendment offered to voters. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)
Voters in Mississippi will head to the polls Tuesday to vote on a “personhood” amendment that would designate a fertilized egg as a person – a move that would likely have the effect of outlawing abortion and, if you believe opponents, all kinds of other unintended consequences, such as criminalizing abortion and possibly restricting birth control and in-vitro fertilization. It could even criminalize a pregnant cancer patient’s chemotherapy, if you believe opponents.

Those potential unintended consequences are what makes Initiative 26 — or MS-26 — a powder keg. If passed, the abortion debate could hit a pitch not seen since the passing of Roe v. Wade. That’s because the “personhood” law would be unprecedented, and its backers have said they intend to take the issue to other states.

The measure has received the support of both the state’s GOP and Democratic nominees for governor, along with that of outgoing Gov. Haley Barbour (R). But even in support, Barbour and Democratic nominee Johnny DuPree have expressed reservations.

“I struggled with it,” Barbour acknowledged in an interview with AP last week. “Some very strongly pro-life people have raised questions about the ambiguity and about the actual consequences – whether there are unforeseen, unintended consequences. And I’ll have to say that I have heard those concerns and they give me some pause.”

That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement.

The fact that Barbour, a socially conservative Southern governor if there ever was one, had a tough time coming out in support of the the referendum shows that this is a dicey a political issue. It also shows how it could come to consume the presidential debate.

The “personhood” amendment has yet to rise to the level of a major national issue, but that could change quickly Tuesday night, provided that it actually passes.

Polling has been piecemeal and doesn’t provide a good indication of how likely the measure is to pass. A similar effort has failed twice in Colorado – taking less than 30 percent of the vote in both 2008 and 2010 – but Mississippi is a very different place than Colorado, and Tuesday’s election could be a pretty low-turnout affair, with the GOP expected to cruise to victory in the governor’s race.

Democrats have already made some political hay on the issue by noting that former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney , who used to support abortion rights, has come out in favor of the idea of a personhood amendment. And Rick Perry and Herman Cain have already struggled to enunciate their views on abortion, with Perry suggesting for a time that it was a states’ rights issue and Cain seeming to suggest abortion should be legal (both later backed off those statements).

Adding the Misssissippi amendment to the mixture could open an even-bigger can of worms.

“Any issue that takes away from the Republican nominee’s plans to revive economic and job growth is an undesirable distraction,” said GOP fundraiser Fred Malek.

So far, the GOP candidates, with the exception of Cain, haven’t had to deal with extensive questions about the issue. But if it passes, they are going to have to answer questions about the law’s alleged unintended consequences.

Abortion is an issue that has worked for the GOP – in recent years, the number of people describing themselves as “pro-life” has surpassed those who consider themselves “pro-choice” — and “values voters” are supposed to have delivered President Bush his 2004 re-election victory – but getting into the weeds on the issue isn’t exactly something that Republican presidential campaigns want right now.

Barbour has established himself as one of the smartest and most important graybeards in the GOP today, and his uncertain response to the issue shows just how delicate of an issue the candidates are facing.

It’s not hard to see this one leading to some similarly pained reactions from GOP presidential candidates.

 
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