TALLAHASSEE — Voters in Mississippi will decide today if a fertilized human egg should be recognized as a person under the state constitution, an antiabortion strategy that a group of Christian conservatives are hoping to mimic here in Florida.
The "personhood" amendment would define a human being "from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the equivalent thereof."
If it passes in Mississippi — a poll released Sunday found that 45 percent of voters supported the amendment, while 44 percent opposed it — the amendment could lead to the banning of all abortions in the state as well as some forms of birth control.
Personhood USA, the Colorado group behind the Mississippi ballot question, has been collecting petition signatures to bring a similar proposal to Florida.
But Florida election laws already have dashed the hopes of the group to have the measure appear on a statewide ballot next year.
The group needs 676,811 petition signatures in Florida — 8 percent of votes cast during the 2008 presidential election — to qualify for the November 2012 ballot.
And those petitions must be certified by local elections supervisors and submitted to the secretary of state by Feb. 1.
Personhood Florida state coordinator Brenda MacMenamin said the group has so far gathered only about 20,000 petition signatures. (Those signatures also will soon become worthless because of changes in state law requiring all petitions to be gathered within two years.)
MacMenamin said Monday that petition gatherers will start over next year in hopes of making the 2014 ballot.
"We have built a network across the state at this point," she said, "so it really is hitting critical mass."
The personhood movement frames its case as the "most important civil rights struggle of our age" on its website, equating it with the Supreme Court's ruling against Missouri slave Dred Scott that deemed him property.
"That's basically what Roe vs. Wade says about the pre-born," said MacMenamin, 51, a stay-at-home mother from Port St. Lucie.
The national organization's goal is to enact a constitutional amendment that would invalidate the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe vs. Wade.
Petition drives are happening across the country. The amendment twice failed to pass in Colorado, including in 2010, when it was defeated by a 3-to-1 ratio.
It is opposed by medical groups because they say it could deter doctors from performing basic life-saving procedures. It has been criticized by some antiabortion groups, who believe a protracted court fight would be sure to follow, taking time and energy away from the goal of overturning Roe vs. Wade.
And, of course, it has become a political issue ahead of the 2012 presidential election.
Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a congresswoman from South Florida, blasted the idea in a conference call with reporters last week.
"We're sounding the alarm bells now because it's absolutely critical that Floridians understand just how extreme this personhood campaign is," said Wasserman Schultz, of Weston.
The effects of the personhood amendment are not altogether certain, though it could make illegal some methods of birth control, including the "morning-after" pill and intrauterine devices, in addition to abortions in the case of rape and incest.
Wasserman Schultz said she conceived two children through in vitro fertilization, a procedure that may also be targeted.
Outgoing Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour shared Wasserman Schultz's concerns over in vitro fertilization, as well as what the amendment would mean for women suffering life-threatening ectopic pregnancies, in which a fertilized egg is implanted outside a woman's uterus.
Still, Barbour said he voted for it because he believes life begins at conception.
In Florida — where the state requires 60 percent voter approval to alter the state constitution — Personhood has at least two well-place allies in the Legislature: Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights, and Senate President Mike Haridopolos.
Haridopolos has already signed a petition, while Van Zant, an architect with a doctorate in theology, plans to propose the "Florida for Life Act." The bill, which failed the two previous legislative sessions, would ban abortion in nearly every circumstance by returning to pre-Roe vs. Wade state law. It provides an exception when a pregnancy puts a mother's life at risk.
"I have higher hopes because many of us have been praying more about it," Van Zant said.
Representatives from two other well known state antiabortion groups, Florida Right to Life and the Florida Family Planning Council, did not return calls seeking comment.
MacMenamin said her group plans to collect signatures regardless of the outcome in Mississippi.
"I really feel that if we do not protect life we will lose our liberty," MacMenamin said.
Katie Sanders can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850)224-7263.