Editor’s note: This is the second article in a two-part series detailing Starkville residents’ opinions of the proposed 26th Amendment to the Mississippi Constitution. The first article in the series was written by Gwen Sisson and printed on Sunday, Oct. 23.
By ANGIE CARNATHAN
Starkville couple B.J. and Jennifer Cougle had been married about five years when they were told they couldn’t have children.
“We found out quickly that IVF was going to be our only option to have children,” Jennifer said.
According to the American Pregnancy Association, IVF is the process of fertilization by manually combining an egg and sperm in a laboratory dish. When the IVF procedure is successful, the process is combined with a procedure known as embryo transfer, which is used to physically place the embryo in the uterus.
The Cougles found a doctor in Jackson and began the process of IVF, which they said was physically, emotionally and mentally taxing; however, they said they knew in their hearts that they were meant to be parents.
“I honestly feel like this was God’s plan for our life,” B.J. said.
Jennifer said each round of IVF was very intense for both her and B.J., but that the process involved counseling for the couple. In the end, they both said it made their marriage and family stronger.
“The day I found out I was pregnant with our first daughter, Alex –– you just can’t explain the joy you feel,” Jennifer said. “After Alex turned a year old, we had two frozen embryos left, so we went down to Jackson and one did not survive. The other one did, and she’s our second daughter, Mary Kenway. We can’t imagine our life without them.”
The Cougles said they respect other people’s beliefs, but they wish that people would really educate themselves to the repercussions Initiative 26 could have on countless of couples just like them who would be denied the right to have children.
“I just really want to get across that you can be a conservative, Christian, pro-lifer and still vote against this bill because of the unintended consequences of it for women’s health care and IVF,” Jennifer said.
B.J. said he is concerned Mississippians would further propagate the theory that we lack common sense and education by passing this initiative.
“Regardless of belief, these are common sense questions that would make this procedure more complicated than it should be for people that very badly want to have children,” B.J. said. “If nothing else, I encourage people to come spend time with my daughters, hold them –– these two children that my wife and I consider miracles and gifts from God –– and then go into the booth and vote against this initiative.”
Brad Prewitt, executive director of Yes on 26, recently said this initiative is not as big a step as the opposition is making it, and that people who oppose 26 are simply trying to “confuse women.” He also said there are some birth control devices that would be “called into question” but hormonal birth control pills were not one of them.
However, while commenting on the book “Does the Birth Control Pill Cause Abortions?” by Randy Alcorn, Dr. Beverly McMillan, a Jackson OB-GYN who is now the president of Pro-Life Mississippi and a member of the Yes On 26 Advisory Board, stated the opposite about the possibility of the hormonal birth control falling under the guidelines of Initiative 26.
“In this impeccably researched book, Randy Alcorn takes an unblinking look at what medical experts know about how birth control pills work,” McMillan said. “I painfully agree that birth control pills do in fact cause abortions.”
If passed, Initiative 26 will amend the state constitution to extend the definition of “person” and “persons” to “include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.”
The Mississippi State Medical Association issued the following statement about the initiative’s wording and future impact:
“Our concern is how this initiative will affect the common practice of obstetrics and gynecology. We fear that it will place in jeopardy a physician who tries to save a mother’s life by performing procedures and employing techniques physicians have used for years. The common procedures we use now could be interpreted as murder or wrongful death if Proposal 26 passes. This justifiably will limit the physician’s options and deter use of common lifesaving procedures. It is for this reason only, the MSMA Board of Trustees cannot support Proposal 26.”
Bishop Joseph Latino of the Catholic Diocese of Jackson is also opposed the effort, although for different reasons.
“As Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Jackson, I must commend the many efforts or our Catholic faithful to promote a culture of life and to act on behalf of the unborn,” Latino said. “As Catholic Christians we must remain steadfast in our commitment to defend human life in all its stages, from moment of conception until natural death. Therefore, while the Personhood Mississippi in a noble initiative, as Bishop, I join with Catholic Bishops in several other states in not endorsing these Personhood petitions. We have committed ourselves to working for a federal Initiative and feel the push for a state Initiative could ultimately harm our efforts to overthrow Roe v.. Wade.”
Many supporters of Yes on 26 cite religious or moral reasonings; however, the Catholic Diocese of Jackson is not the only religious authority to come out in opposition to Initiative 26. Rev. Duncan M. Gray III of the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi also opposes Initiative 26. In an open letter, Gray explains his reasoning for opposing the initiative:
“... I am gravely concerned about the unintended consequences of this legislation. The moral nightmares of doctors no longer able to give preference to saving the life of the mother in such cases as an ectopic pregnancy and the uncertain impact on in-vitro fertilization are real. Thus, the Board of Trustees of the Mississippi Medical Association has announced that it cannot support this legislation. The legal nightmares arising from this legislation are also very real. The word ‘person’ is used over 9,400 times in the Mississippi Annotated Code, and the implications for mass confusion and decades of legal challenges over every use of the term are staggering. While I recognize the complexities of such moral decisions and the need for each of us to make our own informed and prayerful choices, you need to know that I share the aforementioned concerns about the unintended consequences of this legislation.”
Paige and Andy Hunt, formerly of Starkville, said the issue hits too close to home for them.
“Amendment 26 scares me because it could literally have life threatening consequences for me,” Hunt said. “My husband and I have been trying –– unsuccessfully –– to get pregnant for almost five years. After seeing numerous doctors, we were advised that it would be best for me to have surgery. Our doctor found that I did have some cysts in my ovaries and a blocked fallopian tube. During surgery the doctor removed the cysts and unblocked my fallopian tube.”
However, because of the needed operation, Paige is now at an increased risk for ectopic pregnancies.
According to the Mayo Clinic, pregnancy begins with a fertilized egg. Normally, the fertilized egg attaches itself to the lining of the uterus. With an ectopic pregnancy, the fertilized egg implants somewhere else.
An ectopic pregnancy nearly always occurs in one of the tubes that carry eggs from the ovaries to the fallopian tubes. This type of ectopic pregnancy is known as a tubal pregnancy. Rarely, an ectopic pregnancy occurs in the abdomen, ovary or neck of the uterus, or cervix.
The Mayo Clinic goes on to say an ectopic pregnancy can’t proceed normally. The fertilized egg can’t survive, and the growing tissue may destroy various maternal structures. Left untreated, life-threatening blood loss is possible. Early treatment of an ectopic pregnancy can help preserve the chance for future healthy pregnancies.
Paige and Andy Hunt said they are terrified of the risks to Paige’s health in their attempts to have children if Initiative 26 is passed.
“... We know that I have some issues that will need to be closely monitored should we be blessed with a pregnancy,” Paige Hunt said. “It scares me to know that if Amendment 26 passes, it could keep my doctor from giving me life-saving drugs that would end an unviable ectopic pregnancy. Regardless if you are pro-life or pro-choice, please think about the consequences if this bill passes. What if my story was your sister’s story, or your wife’s story, or your story? How would you feel then?”
Dr. Tommy Cobb, an obstetrics and gynecology doctor at the Starkville Clinic for Women, said he is in opposition to Initiative 26 based on the wording of the premise.
“My reading of the proposed amendment includes the phrase ‘every human being from the moment of fertilization,’” Cobb said. “This may seem odd, but that phrase is not clear to me.”
Cobb said the issue is one of logic.
“Many times when fertilization of a human egg by a human sperm occurs no one knows if that is going to become a human being,” Cobb said. “Many human conceptions are lost spontaneously often because of genetic reasons –– the genetic composition of the fertilization do not allow it to continue to develop. These fertilizations are not destined to become human beings.”
Cobb said this happens in a significant percentage of human fertilizations, anywhere from 10 to 20 percent. He also said the possibilities for ectopic pregnancies and molar pregnancies exist. In both cases, the pregnancy in not destined to become a human being, he said.
“With these things in mind I would say that I cannot support the amendment because in a logical fashion the premise is incorrect and I am not sure why we would want to put something that is incorrect in our state constitution intentionally,” Dr. Cobb said.
David McCarty, an MSU graduate and practicing attorney at David Neil McCarty Law Firm, PLLC in Jackson, said he is very concerned about the legal complications that could arise from Initiative 26. The word “person” is used over 9,400 times in the Mississippi Annotated Code, and McCarty said there could be some very real, unintended consequences from the passing of the initiative.
“As a lawyer, I’ve been asked a lot over the past few weeks what Initiative 26 ‘would actually do,’” McCarty said. “The answer is it makes zygotes and fetuses equal citizens with you. A fertilized egg will have the same rights and powers as you, a Mississippian.”
McCarty said he believes people may not fully understand the repercussions of the language, regardless of the proponents of 26 say their intention is.
“... (‘Person’) means just not fetuses, but any fertilized egg –– a zygote,” he said.
McCarty said some examples of sections of the state constitution included with the “person” definition include citizenship, treason, peaceable assembly and the right to keep and bear arms.
“As you can see, this makes a ludicrous word salad out of our State’s founding document, changing over a dozen facets of the Mississippi Bill of Rights,” McCarty said.
However, the one section Starkville resident Alyson Karges said she is worried about is Section 14, which says no person — including zygotes and fetuses if the initiative is passed — shall be deprived of life, liberty or property except by due process of law. After having her first child, Karges was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome and secondary infertility. After the diagnosis, she endured three rounds of infertility treatment and she had two miscarriages. In 2007, Karges experienced her third miscarriage.
“The day I learned I was pregnant, I miscarried,” Karges said.
Fortunately for Karges, her daughter Vivian was born two years later. Karges is now pregnant again for the sixth time.
“I barely whispered I had endured such loss until this amendment came out,” Karges said. “Just knowing privately is bad enough. Add to that the very painful truth that 26 does not distinguish between spontaneous miscarriage and murder. So I could have to endure the loss of a pregnancy and then be investigated because of my ‘actions.’ What do those ‘actions’ include? Who knows, because it isn’t the intent, but the text of the law that will be prosecuted to the fullest scope no matter the intent of the law’s original creators and supporters.”
Lisa Long, of Starkville, said she will be voting no to 26 on Nov. 8.
“My husband and I fell in love and married later in life than most couples and were dismayed to find that having a child would not come easily to us because of our age,” Long said. “After several heartbreaking miscarriages and difficulties conceiving, we discovered I was expecting our daughter who is now almost 2. She is our precious miracle ... but is only with us today thanks to the expertise of physicians here in Starkville and Jackson who assisted me in carrying to term.”
Long said she believes Initiative 26 would deny women like herself the opportunity to know the joy of being a mother and could possibly put the physicians who help women like herself conceive behind bars.
“I have close friends who have suffered ectopic and molar pregnancies,” Long said. “Will they be left to die in the future if treating them becomes illegal for physicians under Initiative 26?”
For Nell Valentine, of Starkville, the passage of Initiative 26 could take away her son’s only chance at life.
“My son was born with a rare genetic disease called Epidermolysis Bullosa (EB),” Valentine said. “It makes his skin very fragile which results in extremely painful blisters and open wounds. Gabe’s best chance to live a normal life will come from a bone marrow transplant from an EB-free brother or sister and in-vitro fertilization is the only way to ensure a healthy (EB-free) and genetically compatible match.”
Valentine said she has seen several pieces of propaganda from the supporters of Initiative 26 which say in-vitro would not be outlawed, but that the embryos created through the process could not be destroyed.
“This, in effect, would make in-vitro impossible for doctors to implement,” Valentine said. “Embryos are inevitably destroyed during the process itself and then there is the question of what would be done with the remaining non-implanted embryos? What about in cases like mine where the non-implanted embryos would have a debilitating and life-threatening genetic disease? No doctor would be willing to perform in-vitro with such regulations in place.”
Valentine said it is heartbreaking to think her child’s chance at a normal life could be taken away.
“No one should have to watch their child suffer as mine does,” Valentine said. “Please do not take away the only hope we have.”
Starkville native Kat Hester said she is voting no to 26 because she feels it is ludicrous to think the state should be making such personal choices for women and families.
“How do any of us fit in to these complete strangers’ decisions,” Hester said. “Why is it our business to assume control over anyone else’s life choices? Are we going to provide funding for them? How ethical is it to force fellow citizens, and their precious families, to do that which is far more complex, irreparable or crippling? When did each family’s careful planning of having — or not having — babies become the public’s concern?”
Finally, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists state in a letter signed by the chair, vice-chair and secretary-treasurer of the Miss. Section of the ACOG the following:
“The Executive Committee of the Mississippi Section, ACOG, has studied proposition 26 and we unanimously agree that is bad for the state of Mississippi. This amendment is not just a pro-choice or pro-life amendment. It has numerous unintended consequences that will affect the care of our patients. While we believe the intentions of this proposition’s supporters are not to do harm, we fear that the people of Mississippi as well as the doctors could be ‘collateral damage’ in the war over abortion.”