Hearing set on lawsuit over 'personhood' amendment

JACKSON — A Hinds County circuit judge is set to hear arguments Oct. 7 in a lawsuit seeking to block a proposed state constitutional amendment that would define life as beginning at conception.

Abortion opponent Les Riley of Pontotoc, who’s head of a group called Personhood Mississippi, led the signature-gathering effort to try to put the issue on the ballot in November 2011 — the same election in which voters will choose a governor, legislators and other state and county officials.

Riley sent an e-mail to supporters Friday asking them to pray that the issue will appear on the ballot and to “pack the courtroom” for the hearing.

“Please consider making a donation to Personhood Mississippi either a one-time gift or as ongoing monthly support — in any amount,” Riley wrote. “Those opposing the amendment have tens of millions to spend to ensure that abortion remains legal and they will do so.”

Attorneys from groups that support abortion rights — Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the state and national chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union — helped file the suit July 6 in Hinds County Circuit Court. The plaintiffs are Deborah Hughes and Cristen Hemmins, identified in court papers only as residents and registered voters in Lafayette County.

Cliff Johnson, one of the attorneys challenging the proposed amendment, said Friday that the case is simple.

“The Mississippi Constitution says that the Mississippi Bill of Rights is sacrosanct and cannot be modified through the initiative process,” Johnson said. “This proposed measure would do just that, so its adoption would violate the constitution. Judge Harrison is a judge who follows the law, and we are confident that no external pressure will influence his decision.”

Robert McDuff of Jackson, an attorney who’s working with Johnson, declined to comment Friday about Riley’s assertion about how much money could be spent in a legal fight. The amendment seeks to end abortions and block the use of emergency contraception.

McDuff said in July that redefining the word “person” would be a substantial change and could lead to government interference in the doctor-patient relationship.

A similar “personhood” amendment will be on the ballot in Colorado this November.

In Mississippi, supporters of the proposed amendment gathered more than 106,000 signatures to try to put it on the ballot in 2011.

Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press