Mississippi voters are likely to be the first in the nation to add to their state constitution "personhood" language that declares unborn children to be persons, effectively outlawing abortion and setting up a potential Supreme Court showdown — if they get a chance to vote on it in November.
On June 6, the Mississippi Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in a pre-emptive court challenge against Measure 26, a ballot question that would define a person as a "human being from the moment of fertilization."
Personhood bills are seen as a direct attack on Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that made abortion a right under the U.S. Constitution. Roe implied that if unborn babies were legal "persons," they would have a right to life under the 14th Amendment, pro-life groups say.
The Alabama Legislature is considering two personhood bills this month, and at least seven other state legislatures introduced similar bills this year, said Keith Mason, a Christian minister who launched Personhood USA in 2008 with fellow evangelist Cal Zastrow.
Meanwhile, a new book by a Georgia pro-life leader argues that personhood goes beyond abortion and is "the human rights issue of the 21st century."
"Sanctity of life" handles emerging issues like "destructive stem-cell research," human cloning and creation of human-animal chimeras, said Daniel Becker, president of Georgia Right to Life and author of "Personhood: A Pragmatic Guide to Prolife Victory in the 21st Century and the Return to First Principles in Politics."
Just as English abolitionist William Wilberforce realized that the 1800s slave trade couldn't be "regulated into submission" and he had to take bolder, decisive actions to end it, modern pro-life forces must recognize that they are in a similar historical moment, wrote Mr. Becker.
Georgia's support of personhood accelerated pro-life victories and led it to become the first state in the nation to endorse personhood in a nonbinding vote. "Delaying a personhood strategy is simply not an option," said Mr. Becker. "The future waits for no man."
Pro-choice organizations vigorously denounce personhood measures as absurd and harmful to women's reproductive freedom.
"Personhood gives fertile eggs the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in its pre-pregnancy state. That is right - pre-pregnancy," a sarcastic Amy Jacobson of Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota wrote this year when the North Dakota House of Representatives passed a personhood bill. It was subsequently tabled in the state Senate.
Ms. Jacobson, as well as advocates at other pro-choice organizations, say personhood bills would not only ban all abortions, but outlaw in-vitro fertilization, embryonic stem-cell research and certain forms of birth control - and even expose pregnant women to criminal charges if they miscarry or recklessly endanger their unborn children.
In the Mississippi case, plaintiffs Deborah Hughes and Cristen Hemmins say that citizen groups cannot use the petition process to change the state's bill of rights, and therefore Measure 26 is unconstitutional.
Attorneys Robert McDuff and J. Cliff Johnson, who are joined by lawyers associated with the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Center for Reproductive Rights, said that proponents of Measure 26 claim not to be proposing a new "right," just clarifying the meaning of the word "person."
However, they wrote, if everyone knew that fertilized eggs were "persons," then fetuses would be counted for political redistricting purposes and teenagers would "receive credit for their nine months in the womb" when applying for a driver's license or registering to vote.
Liberty Counsel lawyer Stephen Crampton, who is representing Les Riley and Personhood Mississippi, said the plaintiffs are relying on a "superficial" reading of the law, and that Measure 26 is permissible - which is why Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Malcolm Harrison issued such a brief opinion on the case in October.
"Plaintiffs carry a heavy burden in attempting to restrict the citizenry's right to amend the Constitution," wrote Judge Harrison, noting that Personhood Mississippi had gathered more than enough signatures to get its measure on the ballot.
The "Constitution recognizes the right of citizens to amend their Constitution. The Court finds plaintiffs have not met their burden," Judge Harrison wrote.
Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, who approved the measure for the ballot, is a defendant in the case.
Pro-life leaders say Measure 26 will pass if it gets to the voters: "We are finding a tremendous amount of support from all walks of life. ... Any poll you take, the majority of Mississippians in every group are overwhelmingly pro-life," Mr. Riley said.
Mississippi "is not Colorado," said Mr. Becker, referring to the state where voters have twice rejected personhood bills. "Mississippi will be the launchpad ... a paradigm shift in the way we approach pro-life strategy," he said.
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