An antiabortion movement that is gaining momentum nationwide is hoping for its first electoral victory Tuesday, when Mississippi voters will decide whether to designate a fertilized egg as a person and potentially label its destruction an act of murder.

If approved, the nation’s first “personhood” amendment could criminalize abortion and limit in-vitro fertilization and some forms of birth control. It also would give a jolt of energy to a national movement that views mainstream antiabortion activists as timid and complacent.

“They’ve just taken an incremental approach,” said Les Riley, the founder of Personhood Mississippi and father of 10 who initiated the state’s effort. “We’re just going to the heart of the matter, which is: Is this a person or not? God says it is, and science has confirmed it.”

“Life-at-conception” ballot initiatives in other parts of the country, including Colorado last year, have failed amid concerns about their far-reaching, and in some cases unforeseeable, implications.

But proponents of the amendment — who were inspired partly by the tea party movement — say they are more confident of victory in Mississippi, a Bible Belt state where antiabortion sentiment runs high and the laws governing the procedure are so strict that just one clinic provides abortions.

Opponents of the measure, including Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union, have cast it more broadly as an infringement on women’s health and an example of government overreach. Like backers of the amendment, dubbed “MS 26,” they have turned out at college football games to distribute literature and spend weekday evenings working phone banks — although not on Wednesdays, because so many people attend church.

“A lot of people think this is just about abortion, but it’s not about abortion,” said Valencia Robinson, an abortion rights and HIV activist in Jackson, who spent a recent day knocking on doors. “It’s bad for women’s health, it’s bad for our economy, and my strongest point is, it’s just government intrusion in our personal lives.”

Still, the measure has broad backing across party lines, with both the Republican and Democratic gubernatorial candidates voicing support for it (the Democrat, Johnny DuPree, has expressed concern about how it would affect birth control and in-vitro fertilization).

Change in approach

For years, the strategy favored by conservative activists nationally has been to gradually decrease access to abortion by cutting government funding and imposing restrictions, such as requiring women to view ultrasound images before the procedure.

The aim has been to reduce the number of abortions while awaiting a mix of justices on the U.S. Supreme Court that would be inclined to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion.

An energized group of activists has grown impatient with that approach. They take an uncompromising position on abortion, opposing it even in cases of rape and incest. Some also oppose making exceptions to save the life of the mother, arguing that both lives are equal and that doctors do not have the right to choose to save one over the other. Some even object to the term “fertilized egg.”

“It’s an embryo,” said Walter Hoye, a California pastor and president of the Issues 4 Life Foundation. “Calling it a fertilized egg is dehumanizing.”

Personhood efforts are underway in more than a dozen states, including Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and Ohio. The movement has grown recently with the help of passionate young antiabortion advocates and more seasoned activists who have grown disenchanted with the pace of change.

They view their approach as an answer to the Roe decision, which concluded that the term “person” does not apply to the unborn under the 14th Amendment. “If this suggestion of personhood is established,” Justice Harry Blackmun wrote in the opinion, the abortion rights advocate’s case “collapses, for the fetus’ right to life would then be guaranteed specifically by the Amendment.”

“I see that as a directive from the court that says, look, if you want to protect unborn children, you’d better recognize them as persons in the full legal sense,” said Rebecca Kiessling, spokeswoman for Personhood USA. Kiessling, a lawyer, is the product of rape; her mother tried twice to obtain back-alley abortions before giving her daughter up for adoption, said Kiessling, who has become a sought-after speaker since writing a pamphlet called “Conceived in Rape.”

Questions and concerns

Many legal experts say that the activists are misinterpreting Blackmun’s language and that the Mississippi measure probably would not stand up in court. If upheld, it could open a host of sticky questions, including whether a woman with cancer would be prevented from receiving chemotherapy if it could kill her fetus.

Th experts say the legal approach could backfire, forcing the courts into making a decision unfavorable to antiabortion activists. That concern has led to skepticism from more established antiabortion groups, including the Eagle Forum, which opposed Colorado’s personhood initiative last year, warning that “its vague language would enable more mischief by judges.”

National medical groups have opposed personhood efforts, saying that they ignore the fact that, left to nature, a large number of fertilized eggs do not survive to birth. Such measures could limit access to birth-control measures that prevent embryos from implanting in a woman’s uterus, such as intrauterine devices. They could restrict in-vitro fertilization, which typically involves fertilizing several eggs and then using just one or two.

Personhood supporters say that such concerns have been drummed up by opponents and that common sense will prevail in situations like the example of the woman with cancer. The Mississippi measure does not deal with the question of enforcement, and if the amendment is adopted, the courts might decide that the state’s homicide laws cannot apply, Kiessling said.