New anti-abortion initiative uncertain as deadline nears

JACKSON — Organizers have little time left to push for a new Mississippi ballot initiative that would declare life begins at conception.

Abortion opponents face a Wednesday deadline to submit petitions to put the proposed state constitutional amendment on the November 2015 ballot. It would be nearly identical to a ballot initiative that 58 percent of Mississippi voters rejected in November 2011.

Organizers for the new petition drive had a year to gather signatures from at least 107,216 registered voters, with an equal number coming from each of the five congressional districts that the state used until 2000.

The year of petitioning started in the spring of 2013. If organizers miss the Wednesday deadline to submit verified signatures to the secretary of state’s office, the initiative will die.

The Associated Press called circuit clerks in 12 large counties Friday, and workers in each office said they had received no petitions. Clerks must verify signatures by checking names against voter-registration rolls, and that process can take hours, or even days, depending on how many names are submitted and how busy the clerks are with other duties.

“Normally, we try to get right on it and get it done as quickly as possible,” said Lee County Circuit Clerk Joy Loftin.

Loftin said, however, that her employees cannot ignore all their other duties, such as filing marriage licenses and court papers, to verify signatures if petitions are brought in close to a filing deadline.

The AP also interviewed circuit clerks or their deputies in Adams, DeSoto, Forrest, Harrison, Hinds, Jackson, Lauderdale, Lowndes, Madison, Rankin and Washington counties.

Mississippi voters rejected a nearly identical life-at-fertilization amendment in 2011. But supporters of the failed initiative said they thought people who voted against it were confused by how it would affect in-vitro fertilization and birth control.

Opponents say a new initiative is a waste of time because Mississippi voters have spoken.

“Health care decisions should be left to a woman, her family, her doctor, and her faith — not politicians,” Felicia Brown-Williams, public policy director for Planned Parenthood Southeast, said when the new petition drive was launched in 2013. “Mississippians expect real solutions to the real crises facing our state, not government intrusion into private medical decisions.”

Ann Reed of Tupelo is secretary of the Personhood Mississippi Political Action Committee and was introduced in 2013 as the main sponsor of the petition drive. Personhood USA, a group that pushed the 2011 initiative in Mississippi, also has been involved in the petition drive to put a measure on the 2015 ballot.

Reed did not immediately respond to interview requests on Friday. During a news conference to announce the initiative proposal in March 2013, she said she regretted having an abortion when she was 17.

“That abortion would never have taken place had it not been legal,” Reed said.

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