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Haley Barbour's complex take on Mississippi 'personhood' measure

November 7, 2011 |  7:17 am

Barbour

On Tuesday, Mississippians will go to the polls to decide the fate of Initiative 26, the proposed constitutional amendment that would ban all abortions by defining personhood as beginning at the moment of fertilization.

The measure has been highly controversial, in large part because of the disagreement over what else it might do. Opponents and some in the medical community say it could ban some forms of birth control pills, drastically reduce the success rate for in vitro fertilization, and hamper doctors' ability to respond to problem pregnancies.

For a little wisdom and insight on the topic, many Mississippians will likely look to Gov. Haley Barbour. Barbour leaves office in a few weeks due to term limits, having crafted a legacy as a credentialed conservative whose practical streak sometimes puts him at odds with those who prefer principles-first orthodoxy. Last year, for example, Barbour made waves in conservative circles for praising the illegal immigrants who helped rebuild the Mississippi coast after Katrina.

So where does the anti-abortion but practical Barbour stand on the initiative? Well ... Mississippians can be excused if they have a hard time figuring that out.

According to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, the group opposing the initiative, Mississippians for Healthy Families, has been blasting out robocalls that begin: "Please hold the line for a message from Republican Gov. Haley Barbour about Initiative 26."

It then uses a recording of Barbour's appearance on a national TV program in which he stated he had "concerns" about the "ambiguity" of Initiative 26.

On Friday, however, Barbour called those calls misleading, saying they were made without his permission. In fact, despite his reservations, Barbour voted for the initiative on his absentee ballot, he told the Associated Press. "I voted for it. I struggled with it," Barbour said Thursday.

Barbour was asked about the issue Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press," and said he still had concerns about the treatment of ectopic pregnancies, in which a fertilized egg implants somewhere other than the uterus. Often those pregnancies are terminated to avoid threats to the woman's life.

However, Barbour also stated his belief that "life begins at conception." "I'm not a physician or a theologian," he added. "I just don't know any other way -- any other time you can say life begins other than at conception."

If the initiative passes, it will almost certainly face a federal court challenge. Some anti-abortion leaders have been wary of lending their support to the Mississippi initiative because they fear new court rulings that could in fact strengthen the abortion right granted under Roe vs. Wade.

The "Meet the Press" segment, which also featured an appearance by Democrat Bill Richardson, offered a preview of the way the Mississippi initiative may reverberate beyond the state, with Democrats using it as an example of a GOP out of touch with women's issues.

Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico, noted that similar personhood initiatives were "sprouting out" in other states, calling them a "huge assault on women's rights in the Republican parties." "The extreme right wing of the Republican Party has taken over to the point where we now have an amendment in several states that criminalize a woman's right to choose, that prevents in-vitro fertilization, that prevents birth control, even in cases of rape or incest," he said.

Barbour said he was "surprised" by Richardson's analysis "that Republican women are doing bad in our primaries since a Republican woman won the primary and succeeded him as governor of New Mexico."

RELATED:

Mississippi attempts to define the start of personhood

Herman Cain leaves opening for GOP rivals on abortion

New rules for abortion clinics will put many out of business

-- Richard Fausset

Photo: Outgoing Gov. Haley Barbour speaks at the Mississippi Economic Council's Hobnob Mississippi gathering in Jackson on Nov. 2. Credit: Rogelio V. Solis / Associated Press

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