Suit seeks to block Miss. 'personhood' initiative

By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press

JACKSON — A lawsuit filed in state court seeks to block a Mississippi “personhood” initiative that would define life as beginning at conception.

The proposed state constitutional amendment, pushed by people who want to end abortion, is scheduled on the ballot in November 2011. That’s the same time voters choose a governor, legislators and many other officials.

Robert McDuff of Jackson is one of the attorneys suing the state on behalf of Deborah Hughes and Cristen Hemmins, identified in court papers only as residents and registered voters in Lafayette County. 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.

McDuff said Wednesday that the “personhood” proposal violates the Mississippi Constitution, which specifies the initiative process can’t be used to change the state Bill of Rights. McDuff said redefining the word “person” would be a substantial change and could lead to government interference in the doctor-patient relationship.

“If a fertilized egg were entitled to due process, some doctors might fear that someone might sue them for the impact of a fertility treatment or for lifesaving measures that may be necessary when a woman suffers a miscarriage,” McDuff said in an interview.

Steve Crampton of Tupelo, an attorney for the conservative Liberty Counsel, has worked with those who gathered signatures to put the amendment on the Mississippi ballot. He said McDuff’s example about possible lawsuits against physicians is “speculative.”

“That hardly seems the basis to bring a legal challenge,” Crampton said.

Abortion opponent Les Riley of Pontotoc led the effort to gather more than 106,000 signatures for the initiative.

“We want to make sure that all human beings have equal protection under the law,” Riley said Wednesday.

The defendant is Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, who certified that Riley and others had gathered enough signatures to put the issue on the ballot. Hosemann also has said he supports the proposed amendment.

“I believe Mississippians do have the right to amend their laws and the constitution by the initiative process followed by an open vote of the electorate,” Hosemann said Wednesday. “I think that’s what the Legislature intended.”

Attorney General Jim Hood’s office will defend the state in the lawsuit, and Hood said he expects to receive help from attorneys for those leading the initiative. No trial date has been set.

Crampton said he disagrees with McDuff’s argument that the “personhood” amendment would substantially change the state Bill of Rights.

“We think this amendment is perfectly appropriate within the confines of the rules laid down by the state of Mississippi for citizen initiatives,” Crampton said.