Yesterday, Mississippi voters decisively rejected a ballot initiative that would have redefined the legal meaning of “personhood” to categorize fertilized eggs as people. Although polls leading up to the election showed that support for the amendment was even split, the resounding defeat of the measure has been attributed to publicly- aired doubts, on both the left and the right, about whether the initiative was too vague and far-reaching in its consequences. Even Mississippi’s outgoing governor, Haley Barbour, who describes himself as “pro-life,” said that he had “concerns” about the initiative’s ambiguity.
The initiative’s opponents claimed that the measure would not only outlaw abortion in all cases, including rape and incest, but effectively prohibit several forms of hormonal birth control. Others worried about the law’s effects on in vitro fertilization. (More whimsically, others questioned whether the “personhood” amendment would allow Mississippi’s teens to vote 9 months earlier than they otherwise would). The measure would have immediately faced a legal challenge, but its resounding failure raises an interesting question: in such a solidly conservative and pro-life state, why was the initiative defeated so soundly?
The answer is quite simple: most people who are “pro-life” do not believe that abortion should be completely illegal. Even in Mississippi, where nearly two-thirds believe abortion should be illegal, only 31% say abortion should be illegal in all cases. And it’s likely that many pro-life Mississippians are not opposed to hormonal birth control. As we learned in our recent report, even Americans who are morally opposed to abortion hold a complex set of views about its legality and availability, which generally run counter to the spirit of the “personhood” amendment.
For many Americans, “pro-choice” and “pro-life,” are not, in fact, mutually exclusive. A significant number of Americans identify as both “pro-choice” and “pro-life” (70% identify with the former, while 66% identify with the latter). Half of Americans who say they are “pro-life” agree that there are some circumstances under which abortion is the best decision a woman can make and 3-in-10 say that having an abortion is morally acceptable. Finally, nearly half (49%) of “pro-life” Americans say that legal abortions should be available in their community.
At the same time, 1 in 4 Americans who identify as “pro-choice” also believe that abortion should be illegal in some or all cases.The fact that pro-life Americans overwhelmingly reject legal abortion in other cases (when the mother is low-income and does not want more children, or if she is still in high school) may not satisfy pro-choice Americans, but it also makes sense that these voters would reject Mississippi’s extreme ballot initiative. After all, fully 81% of Americans who identify as pro-life also support expanding birth control access for women who can’t afford it. Pro-life does not (necessarily) mean anti-birth control, and it doesn’t always mean anti-abortion in all circumstances. Americans have complex and often conflicting attitudes toward abortion, and Mississippi voters’ rejection of this latest ballot initiative is just one more demonstration of these nuances.