Mississippi Burning?

 Dioceses Decline to Support Pro-Life Amendment

James T. McCafferty POSTED: 11/2/11
GUEST COLUMNIST, Mississippi  

Mississippi could become the first state to define legal personhood as beginning from the moment of conception in the state’s November 8 general election.  If it does, it will be without the support of the Catholic bishops of the State.

The pro-life measure commonly called the Personhood amendment and appearing on the ballot as Amendment 26, is a citizens’ initiative to amend the state’s constitution to define legal personhood as beginning at fertilization.   The amendment has been promoted by Personhood Mississippi, a citizens group affiliated with Personhood USA, a grassroots organization that has assisted in similar campaigns across the United States.  According to the group’s website, the amendment’s “purpose is to protect all life, regardless of age, health, function, physical or mental dependency, or method of reproduction.”1

The provision’s backers’ ultimate aim is to overturn Roe v. Wade by striking at what they perceive to be its soft underbelly: the lack of a legal definition of “person.”  Drafted by New Albany, Mississippi, Pro-life activist Leslie Riley, the language of the amendment, as it will appear on the November ballot, is as follows:

Be it Enacted by the People of the State of Mississippi: SECTION 1. Article III of the constitution of the state of Mississippi is hereby amended BY THE ADDITION OF A NEW SECTION TO READ: Section 33. Person defined. As used in this Article III of the state constitution, "The term 'person' or 'persons' shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof." This initiative shall not require any additional revenue for implementation.

Although authored by a Protestant in the most Protestant state in the country, the amendment  would make a part of Mississippi’s constitution the Catholic teaching that “[h]uman life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception.  From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person ‑ among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.[2]

The bill comes before the Mississippi voters by means of the state’s initiative and referendum law.   Under that law, proponents of a constitutional amendment may place the measure before the state legislature by gathering a number of certified signatures equal to 12% of those voting in the most recent gubernatorial election on petitions supporting the measure. The legislature may adopt the amendment by majority votes in both its senate and house of representatives.  If the amendment fails to pass the legislature, it goes before the electorate for referendum.  Alternatively, the legislature may adopt an amended version of the proposal.  In such cases, the original proposal and the amended version go before the people for referendum.[3]

Riley and Personhood Mississippi began their petition drive in 2008.[4]   By February, 2010, they were able to certify some 106,000 petition signatures –15,000 more than the 89,285 needed – to Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann.   The Personhood measure is only the fourth proposal to garner sufficient signatures to force legislative action or ballot referendum in the law’s 19 year history.[5]

After legally required reviews by the Secretary and the Attorney General, the proposal was filed with the legislature.  After the legislature took no action within the time provided by law, the Secretary of State placed the measure on the ballot for the next general election.[6]

Central to the personhood debate is the fourteenth amendment to the United States Constitution, which states in pertinent part:

No State shall . . . deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Roe v. Wade made abortion legal in the U. S. in part by writing the unborn out of the fourteenth amendment.  Declaring the unborn legal non-persons left them without the protection of the law.  Like Robin Hood of old, they were “outlawed”:   rendered fair game for anyone who might kill them.

The Personhood USA website explains how Amendment 26 can topple the  Roe v. Wade abortion regime:

Justice Harry Blackmun wrote in the majority opinion for Roe v. Wade in 1973, “The appellee and certain amici [pro‑lifers] argue that the fetus is a ‘person’ within the language and meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment. In support of this, they outline at length and in detail the well‑known facts of fetal development. If this suggestion of personhood is established, the appellant’s case, of course, collapses, for the fetus’ right to life would then be guaranteed specifically by the Amendment.”[7]

The Roe Court, of course,  went on to say that the legal and social history of abortion in the U. S., among other things, “persuades us that the word ‘person’ as used in the Fourteenth Amendment, does not include the unborn.” [8]

The personhood amendment supporters are undaunted by that holding. They believe that  advances in science since the 1973 Roe opinion can lead the high court to the conclusion that the fetus is indeed a person entitled to the protection of law under the U. S. Constitution.  The Personhood USA site elaborates:

The science of fetology in 1973 was not able to prove, as it can now, that a fully human and unique individual exists at the moment of fertilization and continues to grow through various stages of development in a continuum (barring tragedy) until natural death from old age.

If the Court considers the humanity of the pre‑born child, for which there is overwhelming scientific evidence, it could restore the legal protections of person‑hood to the pre‑born under the 14th Amendment as Blackmun foretold, stopping abortion in a few and then in all fifty states![9]

Not all pro-life activists agree with the Personhood USA strategy.  Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, for instance, opposes such measures.  Eagle Forum argues that the amendments are “losers” and that they bring down “good pro-life candidates” with them, citing as examples the 2008 defeats of pro-life U. S. Senate candidate Bob Schaffer and Congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave.  The Colorado personhood amendment lost 3 to 1.[10]

The amendment might have fared better had it enjoyed the vigorous backing of Colorado’s Catholic Bishops.   According to a February 28, 2008, article in the Denver Post, the bishops’ conference in that state opposed the amendment.  The spokesperson for the conference, Jennifer Kraska, stated “that other people committed to the sanctity of life have raised serious questions about this specific amendment's timing and content."[11]

The same article noted that the Catholic bishops in Georgia had opposed a personhood measure before that state’s legislature on the ground that it “would not effectively challenge Roe v. Wade.”[12]

According to an article in the online edition of the Denver Post, American Life League President Judie Brown is unconvinced:

It's a political, gutless position.  . . .  As a Catholic, it's the most scandalous thing I've ever heard. . . . I can't believe that any bishop wouldn't want to be out in the front lines helping the petitioners.  The sanctity of life is a fundamental teaching of the Catholic Church.[13]

Catholics in Mississippi have found their diocesan bishops to be little or no more supportive of the personhood amendment concept than those in Colorado and Georgia.

Promoters of Amendment 26 contacted the Diocese of Jackson to solicit the support of the Chancery.  Dr. Beverly McMillan of Jackson and Cal Zastro of Kawkawlin, Michigan, visited with His Excellency, Bishop Joseph Latino, on February 9, 2011.  Dr. McMillan is a communicant of St. Richard Catholic Church in Jackson, a long time pro-life activist, and, before her conversion, a founding physician of the first legal abortion clinic in the State of Mississippi.  Zastrow is an evangelical protestant (non-denominational) evangelist and co-founder of Personhood USA.  The two hoped to get Bishop Latino’s endorsement for the proposal.

According to McMillan, His Excellency advised them that “he felt most comfortable with following the US Conference of Catholic Bishops' position of  trying to influence federal pro‑life legislation, but not getting officially involved in state efforts.” A Lucy McVicker, identified in an e-mail sent to McMillan as connected with the USCCB “Pro-Life Secretariat,” “the USCCB does not take a position on state leglislation. . . .   The bishops in the states can, however, decide if it is something that they want to focus on in their state [sic].”

McMillan also said that “while [Bishop Latino] was not willing to endorse Personhood from the Diocesan level that any parish priest who wanted to encourage his congregation to get involved would have his blessing to do so, and could call him to confirm this, should they so wish.”

That is exactly what the  Diocese of Biloxi did, at least initially.  Its vicar general, the Very Reverend Msgr. Dominick Fuliam, sent a memorandum dated February 23, 2011, to all priests of the diocese giving unqualified support to the amendment.  The memorandum stated in part:

[I]t is vital that we who are prolife ensure the success of this campaign by speaking the truth in love.  Those aligned with the culture of death are expected to come out in full force seeking to cloud the issue and spread falsehoods.  Please help assure that are Catholic faithful have the information and encouragement they need to vote “Yes on 26.”

Encouraged by Biloxi’s Msgr Fuliam’s letter, and with the apparent blessing of Jackson’s Bishop Latino to contact local parish seeking support,  McMillan prepared a letter for distribution to parish priests in the Jackson diocese.  Prior to mailing it, she submitted it by e-mail dated August 12, 2011, to Bishop Latino by e-mail for his review.

McMillan was shocked when she subsequently received a phone call from His Excellency denying he had said that he’d left the matter to the discretion of individual priests.  Since that time, at least one diocesan priest has stated that the bishop has forbidden promotion of the amendment in parishes of the diocese.  The author contacted Bishop Latino by e-mail some days ago asking, among other things, if he had in fact forbidden individual priests from supporting the amendment.  Thus far, the author has received no response to that e-mail.

Following a September 16, 2011, event in Jackson attended by some 17 bishops, including the Bishops of Jackson and Biloxi, Catholic backers of Amendment 26 received more disturbing news:  a rumor spread that Bishop Roger Morin of the diocese of Biloxi had withdrawn his chancery’s support of the Personhood Amendment.  On October 27, 2011, Shirley Henderson, director of communications for the Diocese of Biloxi, said that there had been no reversal; that Msgr. Fuliam’s memorandum was a “personal letter” to his “brother priests”; and that individual priests remained free to support or not support the amendment within their respective parishes.

Evangelical Protestants are eagerly backing the amendment. The Mississippi Baptist Convention’s Christian Action Commission, for instance, is supporting Amendment 26, and is sponsoring an entire web page devoted to its promotion.[14]  The Southern Baptist Church is by far the largest religious denomination in Mississippi, claiming 33.8% of the population as members.[15]  Catholics, by contrast, make up only 6%[16] of the state’s population and constitute an even smaller percentage of the population in the diocese of Jackson (around 2.5%).[17]  Mississippi’s population is the most Baptist in the Union and the least Catholic.

The usual suspects (ACLU, Planned Parenthood, Episcopal Church and other mainline Protestants, establishment medical groups) are opposing the Amendment.  What is disheartening to many Catholics is the fact that their opponents are listing the Bishop of the Jackson Diocese as on their side in the anti-amendment fight.  The bishop of  Episcopal Church’s Mississippi diocese, for instance,  recently issued an “open letter” opposing Amendment 26.[18]  In it, he stated that “[f]or their own reasons, Roman Catholic bishops in several states, including Mississippi, have said they could not support this particular legislation.”   Likewise, Mississippians for Healthy Families, an anti-amendment group, has listed Bishop Joseph Latino as one of the “Faith Leaders,” opposed to the amendment.  Other “Faith Leaders” listed are two female Reform Rabbis, Episcopal Bishop Duncan Gray, a number of United Methodist ministers, and the pro-abortion Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.  The “Healthy Families” website also lists Planned Parenthood Southeast and the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi as opposing the amendment.

This is not the first time Mississippi Catholics have seen their diocese on the same side of issues as the “pro-choice” groups. The Catholic Diocese of Jackson regularly partners with the  pro-choice Episcopalian and United Methodist denominations to host “advocacy workshops and bring public attention to the issues affecting Mississippi’s children”[19] and in sponsoring “Children’s Sabbaths.”[20]   The diocese also hosts an annual “ecumenical prayer service” at a local Catholic High School in which  bishops of “the pro-choice” Episcopalian and Methodist denominations are invited to lead the students in prayer.  Now, Catholics in the Diocese of Jackson are confronted with a discouraging scenario in which their Bishop is invoked by some of the most virulently pro-abortion groups in the nation to justify their opposition to Amendment 26.

Bishop Latino has yet to give a meaningful explanation for his position.  His most recent statement includes the following:

I join with Catholic Bishops in several other states in not endorsing Personhood petitions to be circulated in our Catholic parishes. We have committed ourselves to working for a federal amendment and feel the push for a state amendment could ultimately harm our efforts to overturn Roe vs. Wade.


The Diocese is not taking a position against Initiative 26. It is simply choosing to allow individual Catholics to make their own choice on the Initiative based on a formed conscience. Bishop Latino and the Diocese have maintained "the push for a state amendment could ultimately harm our efforts to overturn Roe vs. Wade."

Bishop Latino expressed that he appreciates informed dialogue regarding Initiative 26 and asks that parishioners and constituents understand and articulate his and the Diocese's actual response to the issue as not taking position against Initiative 26. Rather, Bishop urges individual Catholics to form their consciences, educate themselves on the amendment and "vote as they so choose."[21]

Catholics of the Diocese of Jackson are left in a quandary.  His Excellency asks Catholics to “understand and articulate his” position, but doesn’t explain what it is other than to say he believes the amendment campaign “could ultimately harm our efforts to overturn Roe vs. Wade."

The author has requested information on efforts by the Diocese of Jackson toward adoption of a federal pro-life amendment but has not received any response to that request.

Mississippi Catholics are understandably baffled that their shepherds have taken such a negative stance toward the personhood amendment when it reflects Catholic teaching on personhood as stated in the Church’s Catechism, called by John Paul II a “sure norm for teaching the faith.”[22]

Dr. Beverly McMillan expressed the feelings of many pro-Life activist Catholics when she said, “I would feel better about the position of the Diocese if there was an explanation of why the Bishop has taken the position he has taken.”

So far, no such explanation has been forthcoming.  Until such time, the strange case of Catholic bishops not supporting a pro-Life constitutional amendment that conforms exactly to Catholic teaching will remain a mystery.


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..Miss. defeats life-at-fertilization ballot prop
By EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS - Associated Press | AP – 2 hrs 56 mins ago....
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi voters Tuesday defeated a ballot initiative that would have declared life begins at fertilization, a proposal that supporters sought in the Bible Belt state as a way to prompt a legal challenge to abortion rights nationwide.

The so-called "personhood" initiative was rejected by more than 55 percent of voters, falling far short of the threshold needed for it to be enacted. If it had passed, it was virtually assured of drawing legal challenges because it conflicts with the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that established a legal right to abortion. Supporters of the initiative wanted to provoke a lawsuit to challenge the landmark ruling.

The measure divided the medical and religious communities and caused some of the most ardent abortion opponents, including Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, to waver with their support.

Opponents said the measure would have made birth control, such as the morning-after pill or the intrauterine device, illegal. More specifically, the ballot measure called for abortion to be prohibited "from the moment of fertilization" — wording that opponents suggested would have deterred physicians from performing in vitro fertilization because they would fear criminal charges if an embryo doesn't survive.

Supporters were trying to impose their religious beliefs on others by forcing women to carry unwanted pregnancies, including those caused by rape or incest, opponents said.

Amy Brunson voted against the measure, in part because she has been raped. She also has friends and family that had children through in vitro fertilization and she was worried this would end that process.

"The lines are so unclear on what may or may not happen. I think there are circumstances beyond everybody's control that can't be regulated through an amendment," said Brunson, a 36-year-old dog trainer and theater production assistant from Jackson.

Hubert Hoover, a cabinet maker and construction worker, voted for the amendment.

"I figure you can't be half for something, so if you're against abortion you should be for this. You've either got to be wholly for something or wholly against it," said Hoover, 71, who lives in a Jackson suburb.

Mississippi already has tough abortion regulations and only one clinic where the procedures are performed, making it a fitting venue for a national movement to get abortion bans into state constitutions.

Keith Mason, co-founder of the group Personhood USA, which pushed the Mississippi ballot measure, has said a win would send shockwaves around the country. The Colorado-based group is trying to put similar initiatives on 2012 ballots in Florida, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, Nevada and California. Voters in Colorado rejected similar proposals in 2008 and 2010.

Barbour, long considered a 2012 presidential candidate before he ruled out a run this year, said a week ago that he was undecided. A day later, he voted absentee for the amendment, but said he struggled with his support.

"Some very strongly pro-life people have raised questions about the ambiguity and about the actual consequences — whether there are unforeseen, unintended consequences. And I'll have to say that I have heard those concerns and they give me some pause," Barbour said last week.

Barbour was prevented from seeking re-election because of term limits. The Democrat and Republican candidates vying to replace him both supported the abortion measure.

Specifically, the proposed state constitutional amendment would've defined a person "to include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the functional equivalent thereof."

The state's largest Christian denomination, the Mississippi Baptist Convention, backed the proposal through its lobbying arm, the Christian Action Commission.

"We mourn with heaven tonight over the loss of Initiative 26, which would have provided the hope of life for thousands of God's unborn babies in Mississippi," said the commission's director, the Rev. Jimmy Porter. "Instead the unborn in Mississippi will continue to be led down on a path of destruction to horrible deaths both inside their mothers and in laboratories."

The bishops of the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi and the General Conference of the United Methodist Church opposed the initiative.

Bishop Joseph Latino of the Catholic Diocese of Jackson, a church traditionally against abortion, issued a statement neither supporting nor opposing the initiative. The Mississippi State Medical Association took a similar step, while other medical groups opposed it.

Mississippi already requires parental or judicial consent for any minor to get an abortion, mandatory in-person counseling and a 24-hour wait before any woman can terminate a pregnancy.

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