'Personhood' before Mississippi court

By Jack Elliot Jr./The Associated Press

JACKSON — Mississippi’s initiative process can’t be used to change the state constitution’s Bill of Rights as backers of a “personhood” amendment are trying to do, attorneys for the amendment’s opponents told the Mississippi Supreme Court on Monday.

However, backers of the amendment told the court they are trying to define “person” as it is used in the Bill of Rights, not make changes to it.

Stephen Crampton, attorney for the amendment supporters, said the amendment is about the protection of life.

“You can’t protect it unless you know what it is,” Crampton said, “This sets a definition in the law. It is quite modest in its scope. It is not out to abolish, amend or repeal of the Bill of Rights.”

The proposed “personhood” constitutional amendment seeks to define life as beginning at conception.

A Hinds County judge ruled last year that the initiative received more than the required number of signatures to be placed on the ballot.

Robert McDuff, who represented the amendment’s opponents, said an initiative amendment adopted by voters in 1992 provides that the initiative process cannot be used to modify or repeal any portion of the Bill of Rights.

“The court is not going to be deciding with this case when life begins. You will decide the more narrow issue of whether the law was followed,” McDuff said.

While abortion has been the central issue in debate about the initiative, opposing sides in the lawsuit have clashed over whether the “personhood” amendment oversteps the boundaries for proposed state constitutional amendments.

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 original lawsuit.

Others — such as Pro-Life Mississippi, the American Family Association and the Mississippi Baptist Convention — support it. Pro-Life Mississippi held a rally at the Supreme Court building in support of the amendment about an hour before the hearing.

The issue would be on the Nov. 8 ballot, the same election in which voters will choose a governor, legislators, and other state and county officials.

“Mississippi is recognized as a national leader in defending the rights of unborn persons, and the passage of the amendment is a way to let the nation — and the world — know where Mississippi Baptists stand on this issue,” Dr. Jimmy Porter, executive director of the Christian Action Commission of the Mississippi Baptist Convention, said in a statement.

Brad Prewitt, executive director of the American Family Association, said the amendment would not only bring the legal definition of “personhood” into line with what the overwhelming majority of Mississippians already believe, but “would also be consistent with current law on crimes against pregnant women and the unborn.”