CHICAGO (Reuters) - Members of the anti-abortion "personhood" movement, dealt a sound defeat by voters in conservative Mississippi last week, are vowing to push on with their state-by-state campaign to have life declared as beginning at conception.
Warriors on both sides of the decades-long U.S. battle over abortion say personhood may have little chance of success even as the group's members gather petition signatures from Ohio to Oregon to try to get voter referendums on to 2012 ballots.
"If they couldn't win there in Mississippi, I think they're going to have a tough time winning anywhere," said Michael New, a political scientist at the University of Michigan-Dearborn who works with some larger anti-abortion groups.
Prior to Mississippi voting down a proposed personhood constitutional amendment by a 58 percent to 42 percent margin on November 8, movement leaders cautiously predicted victory. They said the southern state's plentiful Baptist, Pentecostal and evangelical churches received them warmly.
But afterward, voters expressed concerns that the language of the amendment -- declaring that the right to life begins when a human egg is fertilized -- could result in the banning of certain types of contraception and make illegal an abortion to save a woman's life, among other ramifications.
"We are disappointed, but I am ready to go again," Personhood USA co-founder Keith Mason said. "As long as I have arms, I will keep swinging the sword."
"We've gathered signatures in California and Montana. We've put down legislation in Alabama and North Dakota," Mason said, citing four of some dozen states where personhood groups are at work to qualify referendums.
The abortion-rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America will campaign against personhood efforts in Nevada, Florida, Ohio, Montana, Colorado, Oregon and elsewhere, a spokesman said.
"We will be anywhere where choice is under attack," spokesman Ted Miller said.
A long-running campaign in Congress to enact a personhood law has made little progress, but nevertheless has dozens of Republican sponsors.
Personhood's Colorado chapter lost two previous attempts to pass constitutional amendments in the state, in 2008 and 2010, by 3-to-1 and 2-to-1 margins, respectively.
"It's a fringe movement," said Laura Chapin, a Denver Democratic strategist who helped defeat the Colorado initiative. "They're trying to get something done at the state level that they know they can't get done nationally."
While the federal campaign languishes, some 15 veteran anti-abortion activists in Colorado-based Personhood USA help largely volunteer state chapters with money and organizing.
"The whole personhood process, we expect it to be a lengthy one," said Mason's wife and fellow activist Jennifer Mason.
"Their enthusiasm is unflagging and they are tenacious. We expect to see more attempts," said Elizabeth Nash of the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion rights group.
Mississippi may have been the best place for the personhood movement to push its cause, because of its strongly conservative, religious population, said Marty Wiseman, a political analyst at Mississippi State University.
Experts said amendment supporters were vastly outspent by anti-personhood forces, a gap likely to persist.
"Planned Parenthood is our opposition and they have a huge budget," Mason said, adding Personhood USA spent roughly $1 million on the Mississippi effort.
Mason said most of Personhood USA's funding comes from small donations, though a Colorado oil magnate, Mickey O'Hare, gave some $150,000 to the 2008 effort in Colorado, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
Abortion rights groups formed a coalition, Mississippians for Healthy Families, that included medical providers and clergy. Planned Parenthood spokesman Tait Sye did not detail how much was spent, but said their "education" effort turned the tide against the amendment.
Amendment opponents lobbied voters with a host of possible consequences: it forbids birth control such as "the morning after pill" and the intrauterine device (IUD) that prevent a fertilized egg from becoming implanted in the womb; it forbids discarding embryos as part of the in vitro fertilization process; it risks criminal liability for women who suffer miscarriages or doctors ending problem pregnancies.
"When we launch these campaigns we have to fight against the campaigns of what-ifs, half-truths, and scare tactics," countered Mason.
But the potentially sweeping consequences of personhood was one of several reasons several larger anti-abortion groups have not endorsed the movement, experts said.
FEARS IT WILL BACKFIRE
Groups that have fought to pass incremental measures to chip away at abortion rights -- parental notification laws, bans on government funding to abortion providers, and waiting periods for women seeking abortions -- say personhood's all-or-nothing approach may backfire.
If a personhood law is enacted, a court challenge would surely follow and the case could end up at the U.S. Supreme Court. Experts say such a law would be on shaky legal grounds and could be struck down by the high court.
The Supreme Court's narrow conservative majority is seen by anti-abortion groups as their best opportunity in decades to overturn Roe v Wade, the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion, and they don't want to risk a defeat over a personhood law.
Among the abortion rights foes that came out against the Mississippi amendment was the Roman Catholic diocese of Jackson, Mississippi, citing the potential legal backlash.
"I often ask them if they rent out their crystal ball," Mason, a non-denominational Christian who adheres to Bible teachings, said of such critics.
Mississippi's Republican Governor Haley Barbour, while voting for the amendment, expressed similar concerns that may have swayed voters, the political analyst New said.
The personhood movement's campaigners in Mississippi tried to reassure voters by arguing that birth control pills would remain legal and a mother's life would be saved if a choice had to be made between her and her unborn child.
Their yard signs and leaflets avoided mentioning the word abortion and featured soft-focus images of babies in utero and a silhouette of a woman kissing her baby's forehead.
"I think what they want to do is take the woman out of the equation," Nash of Guttmacher Institute said. "If we don't think about her and her situation that we can all relate to, then it makes it a much easier decision to make."
Nash said Republican-dominated state legislatures have already made this a year "hostile toward abortion and reproductive rights," citing the enactment of 84 new laws.
Mason, 30, said his generation has grown frustrated that abortions continue despite passage of hundreds of such laws.
Underlining the split among anti-abortion groups, Mason's former employer, Operation Rescue, said personhood campaigners have occasionally disparaged and undermined other efforts.
"Their mind-set is their way is the only moral, ethical way. Everyone else is a dirty compromiser," said Cheryl Sullenger of Operation Rescue, which focuses on shutting down abortion clinics by pointing out health code violations.
Mason was a paid staff member for Operation Rescue for three years before leaving in 2008 -- Sullenger said he was let go -- to launch Personhood USA.
Sullenger said personhood campaigners would rather see the public inflamed by continued abortions than try to cut the number of procedures, a stance she called immoral.
(Additional reporting by Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Verna Gates in Jackson, Mississippi; Keith Coffman in Denver; Jim Leckrone in Columbus, Ohio; Editing by Eric Beech)