Race, Class, and Rights in Mississippi: How A Reproductive Justice Campaign Can Save the Pill and Save the Vote

By Loretta Ross, Founder and National Coordinator of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective

The 2011 Mississippi ballot Initiative 26 on Personhood and Initiative 27 on Voter ID exclusions may be one of the most important opportunities on the ground for the Pro-Choice and Reproductive Justice Movements to work together. In Mississippi, we are witnessing the intersection of race and gender politics in a campaign in which African American voters are probably the most critical constituents when they go to the polls on November 8. It’s a case study on Roe v. Wade intersecting with the Voting Rights Act and the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote.

For the Reproductive Justice movement, this is an example of theory meeting practice in which we have an opportunity to link our human rights struggles in a statewide campaign. The best spokespeople are readily talking about both ballot initiatives consistently by bringing together women, families, race, and poverty. By co-joining race (Voter ID-27) with gender (Personhood-26), we have an excellent opportunity to experience an example of intersectionality in practice in an electoral campaign in which black women may be the very voters we need to move the needle against our opponents’ long-term manipulation of the African American electorate.

We have to strengthen the common ground between the Reproductive Justice and Pro-Choice movements based on linking human rights issues together. Reproductive Justice is our best opportunity to join middle-class women with poor women so that we can win for all women.

I believe we have a strong chance of winning in Mississippi because I trust that African American people, especially black women, will do the right thing and vote against these initiatives if they are given the opportunity to vote, the motivation to vote, and the right information with which to vote. In Mississippi, with its troublesome history of denying black people the right to vote, disenfranchisement through Voter ID is a very important issue that will bring them to the polls. Our task is to convince them to also vote against the Personhood Initiative.

We’re at a great time because the media outlets want to talk about this. We don’t lack an audience. What we lack is a unified message that is intersectional, credible and legitimate and that includes everyone’s concerns. We have to make parallels between race and gender so that people easily understand that we take their human rights seriously.

African Americans are the largest bloc of Democratic voters in the state, far outnumbering pro-choice voters in the Republican Party. Nationally, African Americans are consistently pro-choice and outpace every other racial group in research polls. In addition, it’s easier to vote “no” on two co-joined initiatives that are so vague and lead to disastrous and unknown consequences.

While racial indifference might fly below the radar in another state, Mississippi is more than one-third African American, the highest concentration of black people in the country. The majority of white voters in Mississippi are Republican. The majority of Democratic voters are African Americans who should not be taken for granted or for fools. Both ballot initiatives violate basic human rights. The implications of ignoring the twinned priorities of the African American community are enormous.

In Mississippi, voters are asked by our mutual opponents to vote yes to support a deeply flawed, unconstitutional ballot initiative declaring the fertilized egg as a person from the moment of conception. This creates dangerous unintended consequences for women, doctors, families, and communities. Such government intrusion is bad for our health decisions, bad decision making by the government that should create jobs, and not in line with our values. When the government goes too far, anti-abortion bans cause it to lack compassion for rape and incest victims, and women needing life-saving medical treatments that doctors may be forced to deny to save a fertilized egg. It will force young girls to have kids, and outlaw basic services like birth control pills or emergency contraception.

Personhood efforts actually attempt to trump women’s biology – the vast majority of “fertilized eggs” are lost through menstruation or absorbed into the woman’s body so that only a tiny fraction go on to become pregnancies. Ironically, it will also prevent women who want to become pregnant from using in-vitro fertilization.

Similarly, consequences for Voter ID are grim. If people are kept from voting – because of the lack of government ID or missing birth certificates – then Mississippi returns to the sixties when voter denials based on race and gender were common and mocked our democracy. In the future, our movements will face an even more Republicanized state legislature, guaranteeing that women’s and civil rights will be violated.

What can we do to make our collective effort stronger now?

In message trainings, experts say to start with where the audience is, and then move them to where we want them to be. If campaigns are about communications, then our messages must link the racial and gender politics of Mississippi.

As said in the New York Times on October 25, anti-choice sentiments cross party and racial lines. As an activist who has worked more than 35 years in this movement, I don’t assume that when African Americans say they are “pro-life” that they mean implacable opposition to abortion. In fact, there are many circumstances, including saving a woman’s life, helping victims of rape or incest, or reducing the number of kids raising kids that are strong values in the African American community that convince them to be both pro-choice and pro-life. They have complicated positive and negative feelings about abortion like most people.

However, when it comes to passing laws controlling other people’s bodies and choices, the needle strongly moves to our side because African Americans have an atavistic rejection of anything resembling enslavement. We know that story very well.

In Mississippi, the proponents of the campaign on 26 are listening so that things are changing. Information linking 26 and 27 now appears on literature by the statewide campaign, Mississippians for Healthy Families (MHF). Forums in black churches are planned together by the leaders of the 26 and 27 initiatives in the week before the election, such as the NAACP working with MHF. The Feminist Majority Foundation sent campus organizers who immediately started organizing on both ballot measures distributing literature on both initiatives. The grassroots movement that Allison Korn from National Advocates for Pregnant Women spoke about in an article on RH Reality Check is a strong testament. We must celebrate all sides coming together on the proverbial common ground.

These efforts to reach unity are welcome but come nearly at the goal line, if you will forgive the football analogy from a sports fan. How much more powerful and prepared could we have been together if we had recognized this incredible opportunity earlier?

Our movement’s messages must make clear how Mississippi’s proposed Voter ID ballot initiative will negatively affect seniors, people of color, people with disabilities, low-income voters, immigrants, transgendered people, and students. This is an excellent moment for our movement to show that we clearly recognize the Voter ID initiative in this state for what it really is – a racist attempt to cynically attack the African American electorate under the auspices of curbing voter fraud.

As feminists, we have to remember Harvard Law professor Lani Guinier’s admonition nearly 20 years ago when she warned us that the Voting Rights Act was under attack. Voting rights is a feminist issue because estimates say that 35 million women could lose their right to vote if such laws are passed across the country, according to the Feminist Majority Foundation. A century ago, our foremothers fought for the right to vote. Dare we take for granted that this basic human right is secure against attacks by Republicans?

A simple message might be: Vote NO! Save the Pill on 26! Save the Vote on 27! Or TWO NO’S MAKE A RIGHT! Clear, consistent, concise. While these types of messages lack the nuances that we who use too many words may prefer (and we know who we are!), they are simple, consistent and easily remembered memes for our audiences. We can add nuances in face-to-face and phone conversations because personal voices and heartfelt convictions are sincere in our grassroots mobilization efforts.

At the same time, both messages carry with them our central theme of unintended consequences. The supporters of both initiatives would rather ignore the probability that birth control will be outlawed and that voters without birth certificates could not vote. Women of color will be the first and majority of the casualties of the Personhood Initiative if women are investigated for miscarriages. Mississippi already has the highest rate of infant mortality in the country. If the Voter ID Initiative passes, it is highly likely that the voters most affected will be voters of color. We know this in our guts. Now we have to believe it with our higher reasoning brains.

Our job is to point out these second-order consequences, but our strategy has to be to link the two together.

Obviously, as I write this article I do not know whether we will win because we are only days from the election. But my stomach is churning with anxiety because I care so much. I’m part of a movement of black and white women who need to make a case study of Mississippi to learn what we need to do together when race intersects with abortion politics around the country. Other Personhood and Voter ID efforts will proliferate in 2012.

SisterSong and the Trust Black Women Partnership have folks on the ground in Mississippi doing grassroots advocacy. We’ve built bridges between black and white folks working on the same team for united work on 26 and 27. If the African Americans working on this campaign do not understand the logic of disconnecting the two issues, it is likely that voters we need may not understand our tortured logic as well.

In some ways, it’s ironic that when anti-abortion groups like the Radiance Foundation that put up the billboards accusing black women of committing genocide, the Trust Black Women Partnership easily decoded their fundamental message – they don’t trust black women. We cannot afford to send the same message – we don’t trust black women to understand the African American community.

Our movement needs a checks-and-balances system beyond the ballot box. This means we must learn the difference between the language of respect vs. the discipline of respect. Public displays of privilege, empty rhetoric, and group-think jeopardize our chances for success.

We have known for a year – probably back to 2009 – that Mississippi would be a battleground in our fight. After the election, we must work together to overcome our reluctance to talk about what we did or didn’t do, regardless of the outcome.

My fear is that if we win, some folks will fail to acknowledge that the African American voters delivered the victory. If we lose, then some may say it was similar to the California gay marriage ballot that some falsely claim was lost because of the black voters in California. In reality, it is the failure of those who run campaigns based on outdated campaign models to invest sufficient resources in the African American community to swing the pendulum our way among some of the most consistent and committed Democratic voters on human rights issues.

Southern African American activists have been sounding the alarm to invest much-needed dollars at the grassroots level in Mississippi and throughout the South for quite some time, recognizing that the Civil Rights movement is not over, and that the Women’s Rights movement is embryonic in our region. Those fighting against the Voter ID initiative around the country and especially in Mississippi are clearly under-funded and lack the resources to provide their own polling research, campaign offices, phone banks, etc. We have been forced to do “quick-fix” organizing and mobilizing in Mississippi; had the call of African American reproductive justice activists been heeded, we could have been stronger and united as two movements working together to save women’s lives and women’s votes.

As Celie famously said in The Color Purple, “Until you do right by us, nothing will go right for you.” To be heard, do black women have to bring Nina Simone back to sing her famous song about Mississippi?

Cross-posted from RHRealityCheck.

Part of the #HERvotes blog carnival.

Photo from “I’m Voting No on 26!” album on the Mississippians for Healthy Families Facebook page.

Standing Together with Mississippi Families

By Thomas Dollar, NARAL Pro-Choice America

On Tuesday, November 8, Mississippians will vote on a measure that would ban abortion care and possibly most types of birth control in the Magnolia State.

I’m talking about Initiative 26, Mississippi’s “personhood” ballot measure. “Personhood” measures are one of anti-choice extremists’ new, backdoor ways to ban abortion care.

These extremists are so cruel that they would force a woman who survives rape or incest to carry a pregnancy caused by her attacker.

We can’t stand by and let this attack on the women of Mississippi go unanswered.

NARAL Pro-Choice America is standing together with Mississippians for Healthy Families to stop Initiative 26.

Mississippians for Healthy Families is a coalition of women and men, doctors, attorneys, and faith leaders. They are working day and night to educate voters on the extreme medical and legal ramifications of Initiative 26 because Mississippians need more access to health care, not less.

Here’s how you can help:

“Like” Mississippians for Healthy Families on Facebook.

Sign up to receive email updates about the campaign.

And if you live in Mississippi (or know people who do), be sure to go out and vote NO on Initiative 26 on Tuesday, November 8.

Cross-posted from Blog for Choice.

Part of the #HERvotes blog carnival.

Photo from Mississippians for Healthy Families.

Why I’m Glad My Miscarriage Wasn’t in Mississippi

By Kim Gandy, Feminist Majority Foundation Vice President

I had a miscarriage in 1991. No one accused me of murder. No one arrested and jailed me on suspicion of abortion. No one charged me with endangering the miscarried fetus.

If Initiative 26 to amend the Mississippi constitution passes next week, that won’t be true for the next woman who miscarries. She will be looking over her shoulder for the police (not the anti-abortion police, the real badge-carrying kind) to question her about the circumstances and maybe arrest her if she doesn’t have a doctor who can offer a satisfactory explanation.

Think I’m exaggerating? Think again. Initiative 26 would define a fertilized egg, from the moment of conception, as a legal “person” with all the rights and legal protections of a living, breathing child. From the moment of conception. So a miscarriage would be murder, unless you could prove it was accidental. And of course, so would an abortion–at any stage, no matter how early.

Yep, the birth control pill too–because hormonal pills can prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus. Yes, I know, implantation is the accepted medical definition of pregnancy, and you’re not yet pregnant if the fertilized egg hasn’t implanted in the uterus–but why should Mississippi care what the obstetricians and gynecologists say?

What about an ectopic pregnancy, where a fertilized egg has implanted in the fallopian tube? Would surgery to remove it be prohibited? Maybe yes, because there is no exception to preserve the life of the woman. Seriously: no exception.

Worst of all (could it be worse?) is this: If this passes in Mississippi, it will encourage our opponents to put it on ballots in key states such as Ohio, Florida and Wisconsin next year, affecting millions of women and bringing ultraconservative voters to the polls. If we win in conservative Mississippi, it will discourage them from pursuing this strategy in (even slightly) more progressive states. Think about it.

I was fortunate to have had my miscarriage in circumstances of care and support, where the trauma of miscarriage was not compounded by threat of prosecution.

If you have friends in Mississippi, they may not be so lucky. If you haven’t talked with them lately, this would be a good time to call, write, text, Facebook or otherwise remind them to Vote No on 26 next Tuesday. It could affect far more than Mississippi. Don’t let it slip your mind–do it now.

Part of the #HERvotes blog carnival.

 Photo from Wikimedia Commons user Skiddie2003.

Losing Your Rights Via Personhood

By Janet Hill, Coalition of Labor Union Women, National CLUW Vice President (United Steelworkers)

Don’t be fooled by Initiative 26, Mississippi’s the “personhood amendment.” Government has gone too far and this amendment raises many disturbing questions about the status of women if enacted. The essential question to ask is, if a woman is lying unconscious in a burning building with a rack of embryos, which would be saved first? Initiative 26 would seem to imply the rack of embryos. Why else would Initiative 26 make it possible to deny lifesaving treatment to women? It raises serious questions about medical treatment of common problems such as ectopic pregnancies, infertility and even high-risk pregnancies. This could be why the American Society of Reproductive Medicine and Mississippi Chapter of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists are opposed to this initiative. Clearly it comes between the doctor and his or her patient. The Mississippi Nurses’ Association and the Mississippi State Medical Association oppose it as well.

Even more appalling, a girl raped by her father could be forced by the state to bear her father’s child because there are NO allowances for rape or incest. This goes against all of our society’s values. Perhaps this is why Catholic Bishops in several states oppose this law.

Initiative 26 also poses this disturbing question: If a woman miscarries, no matter how early, no matter what the reason, does the personhood amendment allow her to be charged with murder? Keep in mind that between 50 and 70 percent of first-trimester miscarriages are caused by chromosomal abnormalities in the fertilized egg. Studies estimate that between 30 to 50 percent of fertilized eggs miscarry before or during implantation.

This amendment may radically change over 4000 laws in the state and cause strange lawsuits and criminal charges. It would also outlaw many common forms of contraception. Shouldn’t a state with the highest poverty rate and 31.9 percent of its children living in poverty be thinking about creating good paying jobs not more children? Over the past decade, the cost of raising a child to 18 for a two income middle class family rose 40% to $226,920. Then there is the $155 million a year price tag for Mississippi teen pregnancies, the nation’s highest teen pregnancy rate.

The folks in Colorado voted down the personhood amendments–twice. I encourage everyone in Mississippi to vote NO on Initiative 26, aka the “personhood amendment,” November 8. If you don’t live in Mississippi but have friends and family there encourage them to vote no. Make sure to contact your state representative in Mississippi and ask her or him how this amendment creates jobs when the average income went down and more women and children are slipping into poverty. Ask how this helps create jobs and, finally, tell him or her to quit wasting time and do something about the jobs crisis.

Part of the #HERvotes blog carnival.

Photo from Flickr user themonnie under Creative Commons.

Why Mississippi’s ‘Personhood’ Measure Is a Threat to Women Everywhere

By Lauren Kalina, Advocates for Youth Intern

On November 8, the state of Mississippi will vote on ballot initiative 26, which will attempt to change the Mississippi constitution to define human life as beginning at conception. The actual text of the initiative is as follows:

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.”

For the women of Mississippi, this initiative would attempt to ban abortion, certain types of birth control as well as treatment for infertility and miscarriage. This is a major violation of a woman’s reproductive rights. Additionally, Initiative 26 could have many more far-reaching, unforseen legal and political implications.

Recently, many anti-choice presidential candidates, including Mitt Romney, have come out in support of this life-threatening measure. Romney, like many other conservative politicians, seems to be confused about just how extreme Initiative 26 is. Here, you can watch Rachel Maddow set men straight about how birth control works.

Women’s access to birth control could be severly limited by Initiative 26 because this measure considers a fertilized egg as a human life. However, many forms of birth control prevents the implantation of fertilized eggs, therein creating a conflict. Maybe if our politicans had received better sex education they might understand this more thoroughly…

This vote on November 8th is of particular importance to Mississippians, but should be of great importance to women all over the country. According to CNN, Mississippi is the only state with a “personhood” initiative on the ballot this year. However, according to the CNN article, similar measures are being planned for next year in Florida, Montana and Ohio; and efforts in at least five other states are in the planning stages.

A yes vote on this measure would open the floodgates for more bills such as this to be introduced in other states. Mississippians for Healthy Families has created a coalition of organizations that oppose Initiative 26. The coalition includes: the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood, The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, The American College of Obstetrician Gynecologists and many more.

Regardless of where you live, you can help make a difference in the lives of women and families throughout Mississippi by donating today to the Vote No on 26 campaign. Your support will help the campaign’s grassroots efforts to prevent the passage of this harmful initiative.

Crossposted from Amplify Your Voice.

Part of the #HERvotes blog carnival.

Wisconsin Rep Planning “Personhood” Bill to Criminalize Abortion

By Sofia Resnick, The American Independent

The “personhood movement” has recently grown legs in Wisconsin, where state Rep. Andre Jacque (2nd Assembly District) has promised to introduce a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would change the definition of a person to include “preborn” babies. The intended effect of “personhood” amendments is to criminalize abortion; many critics say such laws could also criminalize some forms of birth control and in vitro fertilization.

In a YouTube video on the recently launched website of Personhood Wisconsin — affiliated with Pro-Life Wisconsin and Personhood USA — Jacque explains that his state’s constitution is flawed because in order to have access to the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, Wisconsinites must first be born.

He continues:

“What this simply does is takes out that requirement that you be born to have these inalienable rights that I think we all should enjoy as human beings. Unfortunately, if you take a look at the possibilities of Roe v. Wade being overturned, we would not have constitutional protection for the unborn in Wisconsin. And that’s why I feel that short of having this change in the constitution and putting it before the voters, there will be the ability for an activist Wisconsin state Supreme Court to deny rights to people that clearly should have that kind of protection – all people, every person at all stages of development.

It really is something where if you take a look at the statute that we already have on the books here in Wisconsin, in terms of prohibiting abortion, that could be stripped away, and it’s important that we find a way to restore that guarantee to all Wisconsin citizens that their human dignity will be respected from the movement of conception until natural death.”

According to Personhood Wisconsin, the amendment is “currently in drafting” but will be introduced this month. This week Personhood Wisconsin unveiled a billboard advertising the to-be-proposed amendment with pictures of humans at different stages of development and an all-caps message on the billboard reading: “YOU. ME. EVERYBODY. WE’RE ALL JUST GROWN-UP EMBRYOS.”

The billboard was designed by Youth Defence, an anti-abortion-rights media group based in Dublin, Ireland, and is sponsored by Pro-Life Wisconsin, 40 Days for Life of Green Bay, Personhood USA and Youth Defence. According to Pro-Life Wisconsin, it is currently located on Highway 41, south of Green Bay, but will move to a different location in Green Bay every three months.

“Demonstrating that at one point, all of us were just embryos, the personhood message is one we can all identify with,” said Pro-Life Wisconsin spokesperson Virginia Zignego in a statement.

On November 8, Mississippians will vote on whether to add a “personhood” amendment to their state constitution.

Excerpted from The American Independent News Network. All rights reserved. Please do not reprint without permission.

Part of the #HERvotes blog carnival.

Original photo of bowl and spoons from Flickr user gniliep under Creative Commons 2.0; text added.