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A Mississippi reject for the California Constitution?

November 28, 2011 | 12:55 pm

I hate the idea of California getting Mississippi's leftovers.

For years, whatever their troubles, however lousy their school test scores or healthcare or crime stats, the other 49 states have been able to say, "Thank God for Mississippi –- at least there’s one state worse off than we are."

Will California still be able to say that next year?

It doesn't take much to come up with an idea for a ballot initiative in California and get the go-ahead from the secretary of state's office to collect signatures. The hard part is getting the hundreds of thousands of signatures to get it on the ballot, and the millions of dollars to get voters to vote for it.

So this may be the first –- and the last -– that you hear about the California version of Mississippi's "personhood" amendment.

Mississippi's Amendment 26 would have changed that state's constitution to define a "person" as a fertilized egg. One egg plus one sperm equals you, or me, and all the legal rights thereunto.

The amendment was so extreme that even Mississippi said no. This month, Mississippi's voters rejected it, and it wasn't close.

It wasn't just because of all the jokes about pregnant women in the carpool lanes. (A pregnant California woman ticketed for zipping down the carpool lane of the Costa Mesa Freeway all by her lonesome in 1987 went to court, arguing that her fetus was a passenger. She lost.)

Even abortion opponents, and there are plenty in Mississippi, were uneasy about this one. Amendment 26 would have outlawed not only abortion but some forms of birth control, like the IUD.

Doctors performing in vitro fertilizations might have been charged with crimes if embryos didn't survive. And the amendment made no exceptions for rape, none for incest, none for a fatally deformed fetus.

The Mayo Clinic estimates that as many as 15% to 20% of known pregnancies end in miscarriage, but the actual number is "much higher"; many spontaneous miscarriages can occur even before the woman knows she's pregnant, because of some genetic or other medical problem with the fertilized egg. Even the zygote stage, between one and four days into a pregnancy, would have been defined under Mississippi's measure as a person.

Why am I telling Californians this? Because someone's trying to rerun Mississippi's reject in California.

Here's the official language:

CONSTITUTIONAL DEFINITION OF A PERSON. INITIATIVE CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT. Defines "person" as including all living human beings from the beginning of their biological development as human organisms, for purposes of state constitutional protections of due process and equal protection. Eliminates state constitutional protections of due process and equal protection for non-biological entities, such as corporations. Summary of estimate by Legislative Analyst and Director of Finance of fiscal impact on state and local government: Costs from the establishment of due process and equal protection rights for zygotes, embryos, and fetuses, potentially in the tens of millions of dollars annually.

Colorado voters have rejected a version of this, twice. For anyone who's going state-shopping for a big antiabortion case to take to the Supreme Court, California doesn't seem like a promising place to go, and this doesn't seem like a promising law to do it. After all, "even Mississippi … "

But did you notice the twist on this version? It tries to broaden its appeal with a populist, Occupy-minded provision ending constitutional protections for "non-biological entities, such as corporations."

This component not only challenges the U.S. Supreme Court ruling granting corporations the rights of living people, but I wonder whether this would pass California's legal muster, for simple procedural reasons.

I have read that under California's ''single subject rule,'' a single initiative cannot legally try to accomplish two different things at once, in this case two constitutional provisions that seem only tenuously related.

The attorney general's office has signed off on this, so I suppose it has met the standards -– still, it seems like the election version of throwing a change-up.

Does "personhood" law mean the government can go through your trash looking for pregnancy tests? Can women claim tax deductions for dependents a couple of times a year, and then say they thought they were pregnant but they were wrong? How about installing ultrasound machines at every airport and DMV? Would the government investigate miscarriages?

As for the disquieting social and civil rights implications of the "personhood" part, well -- "The Handmaid's Tale," anyone?

And if, by any remote stretch of the imagination and the constitution, this were to get on the ballot and pass, commuters look out -- the carpool lanes really would be filled with pregnant drivers.


Daum: Zygotes on a slippery slope

Covering maternity care in California

The shocking contempt for women's rights

Campaign of misinformation against Planned Parenthood

-- Patt Morrison

Photo: Christi Chandler, a proponent for the so-called personhood amendment, waves her sign at drivers in the midst of last-minute campaigning on Nov. 8 in Madison, Miss.  Credit: Rogelio V. Solis / Associated Press

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