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Abortion referendum in Mississippi would redefine 'personhood'

A ballot measure expected to pass in Mississippi this week would define 'personhood' as beginning at the moment of fertilization or cloning. Abortion rights groups are fighting the measure, which could end up in the US Supreme Court.

Parents against the Mississippi Initiative 26 attend a rally at the State Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Oct. 27. Mississippi doctors against Initiative 26, also known as the Personhood Initiative, gathered at the Capitol to state reasons for their opposition. The doctor's group is supported by the Mississippi Nurses Association which voted at their state convention to oppose the initiative.

Barbara Gauntt/The Clarion-Ledger/AP

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Abortion rights in Mississippi are being tested with a referendum on the ballot Tuesday asking voters to amend the state constitution to redefine the term “person” to include “every human being from the moment of fertilization” or cloning.

Opponents charge that the change – which both sides say is likely to pass – is a backdoor way to outlaw abortion that could put the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision in jeopardy. Redefining “personhood” under Mississippi's Bill of Rights will likely lead to court battles that may end up before the US Supreme Court.

The strategy is being used in several states this year, according to Personhood USA, an Arvada, Colo., organization that provides assistance to state efforts. Besides Mississippi, petitions to put a personhood amendment on the 2012 ballot have been filed in Ohio, Nevada, and California, and there is petition activity in every other state as well.

“Passing these laws in the state and building the base is the very thing that will give credibility and traction to the federal efforts … we’re essentially building political capital. Pass or fail on the ballot, we are churning up, literally, a movement,” Keith Mason, president of Personhood USA, told Bloomberg News.

So far, the ballot initiative made it past the Mississippi Supreme Court, which in September dismissed a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, Planned Parenthood, and the Center for Reproductive Rights by saying the court could not rule on the constitutionality of the initiative before an actual vote was established.

However, opponents say they are less worried about the constitutional implications of the measure than they are about what it could mean if it became law. They say the broad language could make abortions or certain birth control methods illegal and that contraceptive pills may potentially be outlawed.

The state’s medical community also says it is under threat. They say certain surgeries performed after pregnancy complications will be outlawed because they would put the unborn at risk. The Mississippi State Medical Association, for example, is warning that doctors could be charged with murder or wrongful death for “employing techniques physicians have used for years.”

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