Stepping into a growing national debate over abortion rights, the Mississippi Supreme Court heard arguments Monday about whether to allow a "personhood" amendment to remain on the ballot this fall.
If passed by Mississippi voters in November, Measure 26 would define a "person" in the state's constitution as "every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof," said sponsors Les Riley and Personhood Mississippi.
The amendment and others under consideration in other states are designed to effectively outlaw abortion and set up a potential challenge to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that struck down state laws against abortion in the United States.
Pro-choice supporters oppose Measure 26, and two Mississippi women, Deborah Hughes and Cristen Hemmins, are seeking to block the amendment from the ballot. Their case is supported by lawyers associated with the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Center for Reproductive Rights.
In an hourlong session Monday, Robert McDuff, a Jackson, Miss., attorney for the plaintiffs, told the nine justices that they were simply being asked to decide "whether the rules were followed" in having Measure 26 approved for the ballot.
The people of Mississippi voted in 1992 to create two ways to amend their state constitution: gather signatures to put an initiative on the ballot or have their legislature pass an amendment for voters to approve or reject, said Mr. McDuff.
Measure 26 is unconstitutional because the 1992 law said that the initiative process "shall not be used for the proposal, modification or repeal for any portion of the Bill of Rights of this constitution," he argued.
Liberty Counsel lawyer Stephen Crampton countered that Measure 26 is permissible because it only clarifies the meaning of a word - "person" - in the state's Bill of Rights.
Mississippi Supreme Court Presiding Justice Jess H. Dickinson and Associate Justice Michael K. Randolph frequently led the questioning, which focused on the meanings of words such as "modification" and "amend," and the relevance of another section in the Mississippi Constitution that allows the people to "alter and abolish their constitution ... whenever they deem it."
Last fall, Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Malcolm Harrison ruled that the proposed "personhood" amendment could be placed before voters. The state constitution "recognizes the right of citizens to amend their constitution," and the plaintiffs "carry a heavy burden in attempting to restrict" that right, Judge Harrison wrote.
Amendment supporters think their approach will disallow abortions, including those involving rape. To bolster their arguments, Personhood Mississippi has been helping Rebecca Kiessling, whose mother was raped at knifepoint, speak at events.
"A baby is not the worst thing that could ever happen to a rape victim - an abortion is," said Ms. Kiessling, who tells audiences how her birth mother sought an abortion, which was illegal at the time, but then gave birth and placed her daughter up for adoption instead.
Supporters of the "personhood" concept also think their approach is key to protecting disabled persons and the elderly and block science experiments using human embryos.
A similar amendment was twice rejected by Colorado voters, but efforts to pass personhood amendments are progressing in other states, such as Louisiana and Alabama.
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