Riley declined to be interviewed or respond to written questions about his past or present work. Instead he asked Brad Prewitt, executive director of Yes on 26, a new group that is now leading the effort to pass the amendment, to answer questions on his behalf. (Yes on 26 features representatives from Riley's Personhood Mississippi, as well as a number of conservative Christian politicians and organizations.) Prewitt called Atwood's concerns about fertility procedures "poppycock." "All I would say is you can't destroy the embryos if people want to adopt embryos just like they want to adopt children," he says. Instead of being thrown out, he says, they would simply be frozen—although, as a recent Jackson Clarion-Ledger op-ed pointed out, without clarifying language for the amendment, that might be classified as child abuse. The Yes on 26 website has referred to the use of embryonic stem cells for research purposes as "human cannibalism."
For the amendment's supporters, the fact that the new law would not allow exceptions for rape or incest is something to be highlighted. Riley's Conceived in Rape Tour was an attempt to counter the notion, held even by many pro-lifers, that abortion is acceptable in cases of rape or incest. Those are "a tragic occurrence," Prewitt says, "but you don't execute the product of the crime, and that's what abortion does."
Although Prewitt argues that contraception would not be affected by the measure since it precedes fertilization, he also touts the morning-after-pill as one of its targets, calling it a "human pesticide." (An FAQ aimed at debunking misconceptions on the Yes on 26 website claims "most forms of 'the pill'" will not be banned.)
One prominent conservative warned against "a gimmick that wastes money and harms pro-life candidates."
Moreover, because the language of the amendment is so broad, it could force state agencies to revisit and revise any regulation that includes the word "person," according to Jordan Goldberg, an attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights. It would impact regulations on "the number of people who could ride a bus and the number of people who would be permitted to ride in a car," she says, or any statute that involves the collection of census data, such as redistricting. "It sounds absurd, but frankly so is this proposal," she says.
Prewitt, meanwhile, took pains to distance his organization's work from that of Riley. "I would describe it probably as 'fringe' for sure," Prewitt said of Riley's secessionist background. "We're not associated with 'fringe,' and we're not fringe. But we're not in control of what everyone does." He added: "We like the United States, and we like living where we're living, and we like inclusion, not exclusion."
The movement Riley created in Mississippi is the latest in a parade of efforts over the last year to curtail reproductive rights through radical legislation. In February, South Dakota and Nebraska both considered bills that would have made it a "justifiable homicide" to kill an abortion doctor. In March, a Louisiana state legislator introduced a bill that would have classified abortion as "feticide." Ohio is considering a measure known as the "Heartbeat Bill," which would ban abortions once a heartbeat is detected. At Sen. Jim DeMint's presidential forum in South Carolina in September, candidates were grilled on whether they supported applying 14th Amendment protections to fetuses. Riley's effort takes it to the level of granting not just fetuses but also zygotes the same rights as people.
The ACLU of Mississippi, Planned Parenthood, and the Center for Reproductive Rights filed a joint lawsuit to block the measure from appearing on the ballot, but earlier this month, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that the referendum could proceed as scheduled. Writing for the 7-2 majority, justice Randy "Bubba" Pierce explained that the body didn't have the authority to evaluate the merits of a provision before it went into effect: "Pre-election challenges of voter initiative proposals are subject only to the review of the sufficiency of the petition itself (i.e., its form) and not its constitutionality," he wrote.
But abortion rights supporters may get some tacit help from an unlikely source: the pro-life movement itself. The only other state to hold a referendum on personhood is Colorado, which voted down constitutional amendments by a 3-1 margin in both 2008 and 2010. As those numbers suggest, the more radical approach has caused a schism among anti-abortion activists, with some high-profile leaders arguing that the proposals could be counterproductive.
Phyllis Schlafly, founder of the far-right Eagle Forum, warned in a 2010 newsletter that Colorado's personhood drive was "a gimmick that wastes money and harms pro-life candidates." James Bopp, the conservative lawyer behind the Citizens United ruling and counsel to National Right to Life, has argued that "significant damage would be done" if a personhood amendment were to be challenged in federal court—which it almost certainly would.
But Prewitt, and apparently Riley, see only a worthwhile gamble in pursuing their dream of overturning Roe v. Wade. "You don't even know who's gonna be on the Court, who's gonna be in good health and living, who's gonna get confirmed," he says. "You can't predict those things; it's like wagering in Vegas."