Cohen argues against the Mississippi Personhood Ballot Initiative

Professor I. Glenn Cohen '03

Professor I. Glenn Cohen ’03

Harvard Law School Assistant Professor of Law I. Glenn Cohen joined medical and legal experts live via Skype on Oct. 25 at Mississippi College School of Law to debate the implications of Mississippi’s Personhood initiative, which will appear on the state’s ballot Nov. 8. The initiative asks: “Should the term ‘person’ be defined to include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the equivalent thereof?”

“Mississippi is the only state voting on a life-at-fertilization amendment this fall. … The move to define life so definitively in state law represents a new tact in the anti-abortion movement, in which they essentially attempt to make all forms of abortion – and some forms of birth control – the legal equivalent of murder,” the Associated Press reported.

Cohen, who is also co-director of HLS’s Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology and Bioethics, argued that pro-life and pro-choice voters alike should not support the proposed state amendment.

“Whether you are for or against abortion, whatever your position is, this is a bad amendment – not because of what it represents but because it is ambiguous,” he said.

Cohen elaborated on this argument in his recent New York Times op-ed, co-written by Jonathan F. Will, assistant professor of law at Mississippi College School of Law and director of the Bioethics & Health Law Center:

“It is obvious why those who support abortion rights will be uncomfortable with this amendment. But opponents of abortion rights may find that it covers more than they bargained for, including some forms of in vitro fertilization and birth control. Indeed, even opponents of abortion rights who would like nothing more than to give the courts an opportunity to reverse Roe v. Wade may find this amendment a bad vehicle for doing so. Courts frequently read ambiguous language as a strategy to avoid raising serious constitutional questions. By endorsing a ballot initiative that is deeply ambiguous, pro-life constituencies could be inviting courts to read the amendment in a way that sidesteps the very constitutional question they want to force.”

The full op-ed is available here.

Cohen also recently addressed the related issue of fetal pain in his article, “Fetal Pain, Abortion, Viability and the Constitution,” published by The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, available here.