On Personhood

By Lauren Levine, Jewish Women International Executive Associate

On November 8, Mississippi voters will be asked the question, “Should the term “person” be defined to include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the equivalent thereof?” The proposed constitutional amendment, known as Initiative 26 or the “Personhood Amendment” is the pro-life movement’s attempt to overturn Roe V. Wade, starting in Mississippi.

But Mississippi is more than just the home to the personhood amendment. It is the state with the highest infant mortality rate in the U.S. In fact, it’s the only state to hit double digits with 10.6 deaths per 1000 births (CDC). Mississippi has the highest birthrate amongst teenagers aged 15-19, at 65.7% of all births in 2008 (CDC). And since this proposed constitutional amendment is motivated by religious beliefs, it should be noted that is also the state with the highest rate of unmarried pregnancies (CDC).

Given these shocking statistics, it’s shameful that anti-choice groups have made this the focus of political debate in Mississippi. Instead of proposing religiously and politically motivated legislation, lawmakers in Mississippi must bring attention to issues that will actually improve the lives of their constituents- improved preventative health coverage and comprehensive sexual education. Actual persons in the Magnolia state deserve better than Initiative 26.

Cross-posted from Jewish Women International.

Part of the #HERvotes blog carnival.

Mississippi Blues

By Holly L. Derr, Ms. Magazine

Folks, we’ve got a situation in Mississippi. In September, the state’s Supreme Court decided to allow a so-called “personhood” amendment to appear on the ballot this November 8. In addition to electing a governor, a secretary of state, an attorney general and members of the state legislature, voters will be asked to decide whether to amend their state constitution to include the following language:

The term ‘person’ or ‘persons’ shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.

And that’s it. The amendment does not state how or in what context that definition will be applied, what existing legal standards will be changed or what exactly will be enforceable because of it. But the implications are far reaching.

The stated intentions of Personhood Mississippi, the organization behind the amendment, are to end abortion and to provoke a lawsuit that will lead to the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade:

If Mississippians vote Yes on Amendment 26 – a legal challenge will be set up to the unconstitutional court ruling ‘Roe-v-Wade’ that allegedly ‘legalized’ abortion. … The Personhood Amendment does just that – challenge Roe-v-Wade at it’s very core.

The group also makes clear that there will be no abortion exception for rape or a woman’s health or life.

That’s bad enough. Their unstated intentions are even more disturbing. The truth is, Amendment 26 would also ban emergency contraception (EC) and other forms of hormonal contraceptives, such as birth control pills, because in thinning the lining of the uterus they may, in theory, prevent a fertilized egg from attaching to it; the termination of ectopic pregnancies, which threaten the lives of women who have them; and IVF, because you’re probably not allowed to keep “people” in petri dishes.

So far, the personhood movement’s answer to “But that will ban the pill and IVF!” has been “No it won’t.” They offer no evidence that it won’t do that and no explanation of how they intend the broadly worded amendment to be applied in those areas or in medical emergencies.

Proponents do admit that the amendment will ban the EC known as Plan B because it prevents implantation of a fertilized egg. But they tend to roll over and play dead when you point out that Plan B is made of the same substance as other hormonal contraceptives, such as the Pill. When taken regularly, the Pill works to prevent ovulation and therefore fertilization, but like Plan B it also alters the lining of the uterus in a way that would prevent implantation. Likewise, IUDs work by preventing implantation. Both could easily be outlawed on those grounds.

Supporters of Amendment 26 have offered no evidence that the law, vaguely written as it is, won’t be used to make birth control illegal. Indeed, prominent supporters of the so-called personhood amendment such as the American Family Association, which has devoted $100,000 to the cause in Mississippi, openly oppose contraception, going so far as to call it eugenics and “just as bad as abortion.” Dr. Beverly McMillan, president of Pro-Life Mississippi and a member of the advisory board to Yes on 26, has openly argued that “birth control pills do indeed cause abortions.” (McMillan’s husband, by the way, is C. Roy McMillan, an advocate of “justifiable homicide“—the murder of abortion doctors.)

And it doesn’t stop there. People in Mississippi who have trouble getting pregnant would no longer be able to use reproductive technology to do so. Atlee Breland is doing everything she can to educate the public about the real impact of Amendment 26 on IVF: She has set up Parents Against MS 26, which contains an extensive FAQ with information verified by Resolve, The National Infertility Association, that illuminates the implication of treating embryos created with reproductive technology as people. For starters, it would create quite a liability for the clinics that create and store embryos. Plus, I’m pretty sure freezing “people” isn’t allowed.

It’s hard not to think that this is another cynical effort by conservatives to get out the vote in an off-year election. Let’s hope it backfires: According to Students Voting No on 26 organizers on the ground, college students in Mississippi are riled up and ready to go. They better be, because the ballot also includes a voter ID initiative that would disenfranchise many of them in 2012.

Maybe the politicians behind the ploy don’t know that 15.3 million American women use hormonal birth control. Support for birth control is so strong that 3 in 4 Americans approve of requiring insurers to cover it and 80 percent believe pharmacists should have to provide it regardless of their “consciences.” Among women aged 18 to 40, it is the most prescribed drug in America. IVF is increasingly common as well: In 2009 (the most recent year for which data is available), 60,190 infants were born in the U.S. using reproductive technology.

We are certain that when voters understand that the amendment would ban both birth control and IVF, in addition to life-saving abortions, they will defeat it. But just in case, it wouldn’t hurt to get involved. ACLU Mississippi, Planned Parenthood Southeast and other Mississippi groups have joined together to fight the initiative and educate voters as to its real implications. Remember, it only takes one Supreme Court case to overturn Roe. Do you trust the same Court that thinks corporations are people to make the right choice here?

Cross-posted from Ms. Magazine Blog

Part of the #HERvotes blog carnival.

Photo from Flickr user WeNews under Creative Commons 2.0.

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.