This post is part of our week-long series on the personal impact of the current state of reproductive health, rights, and justice.
by Jazmine Walker
Walker is a big fine woman and a fellow at Rural Support Partners in Asheville, North Carolina. She came of age in a largely black working class community in Mississippi’s state capital. She has interned for SisterSong: Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, where she worked on projects related to not only reproductive health, but also issues that impacted communities of color. She is continues to be apart of Trust Black Women, which is a partnership of women who advocate for black women having the human right to make their own decisions about their reproductive lives. Check her out at Still Furious and Still Brave: Who’s Afraid of Persistent Blackness.
Tuesday, January 22 marks the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade — the monumental court decision, which extends the privacy clause of the 14th Amendment to include a woman’s right to have an abortion. However, the ambiguity of the court decision has caused a 40-year upheaval as to the extent to which abortion should be legal, the deciders of said legality, and the extent to which personal and religious beliefs should influence such legal matters. As a Mississippian,displaced in North Carolina, I have watched government officials, church leaders, anti-choice activists, and citizens fight tirelessly to criminalize abortion in my home state. So though I am grateful for what this day symbolizes and the great impact this decision has had for women across the nation, I can’t help but find it bittersweet. Mississippi continues to be a battleground over women’s rights, but discourse (and even activism) surrounding the state too often implies that it is “backwards.” We sorely lack meaningful and sustainable help that heals the people who are most hurt by our legislative body: poor families of color.
In observance on this day and in solidarity with my people in Mississippi, I have comprised a list of issues that intentionally undermine Roe v. Wade not only by making abortion illegal for all intents and purposes, but also create stigma around women’s sexual and reproductive choices in the state.
1. MISSISSIPPI’S SOLE ABORTION CLINIC IS ON THE VERGE OF CLOSING.
Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant and his conservative cronies in the legislature have managed to pass a law stipulating that only Obstetrician/Gynecologists with privileges to admit patients to a local hospital may perform clinic abortions. The doctors at the lone clinic do not have those privileges, and the clinic says the privileges aren’t medically necessary. Though a U.S. District judge temporarily blocked the state law on July 1, 2012 the abortion clinic remains under the threat of being closed, and it is no secret that Bryant’s personal goal is to make Mississippi an “abortion-free” state.
2. TEENAGERS ARE BEING BLAMED FOR ABSTINENCE-ONLY SEX ED’S FAILURE.
Mississippi retains the highest teen pregnancy rates in the nation, yet 81 Mississippi School Districts are teaching abstinence-only courses, and it isillegal for teachers to instruct students on how to use contraceptives. Despite these institutional shortcomings, Gov. Phil Bryant told reporters he believes that although most adolescents do know how to obtain and use contraception, “the problem is teenagers do not careenough” about using birth control. A quick word to Phil: it isn’t that teenagers don’t care about using birth control; you and your Bible thumping gang don’t care to teach them how to use it. Bryant is more concerned about shame and fear-based tactics instead of productive, educational conversations about sex. At a conference of 200 teens, Bryant told participants, “If you want to fail in life, if you want to endup being on Medicaid — CHIPS and Medicaid and food stamps the rest of yourlife — if you never want to have a career, then all you’ve got to do is drophigh school and have a baby…And I can almost assure you that’s what’s going tohappen to you.”
3. DESPITE ITS FAILURE IN 2011, PERSONHOOD IS BACK TO HAUNT MS.
On November 8, 2011, Mississippians faced a seemingly simple question on their ballots: “Should the term ‘person’ be defined to include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the functional equivalent thereof?” The proposed amendment sought to undo laws that protect abortion rights, stem cell research, in vitro fertilization (IVF), and even some forms of birth control. This could have resulted in the systemic criminalization of women who experience miscarriages, stillbirths, or even women who decided to save their own lives, rather than the fetus. Fifty-five percent of the voters rejected this dangerous, precedent-setting initiative. But Personhood lives on. State Representative Andy Gipson has proposed a concurrent resolution that will give full legal rights at the moment of conception, despite science’s inability to pinpoint exactly what that moment. Adapting their strategy since the previous personhood campaign, anti-choice legislators (like good ol’ Andy) made it so that the new amendment will not apply to IVF treatments, ectopic pregnancies and other treatments for life-threatening ailments or ” birth control not killing a person,” but the measure is no less dangerous. If passed, MS will battle Personhood on the ballot once again in 2014. Unfortunately, personhood is not the only upcoming bill. Gov. Phil Bryant recently announced that he will support a bill that will ban abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected. Limiting choice is Bryant’s personal crusade, and as we continue to see, he is willing to do so by any means.
4. LOW-INCOME FAMILIES’ HUMAN RIGHTS ARE BEING COMPROMISED.
Sometime this year, MS will implement a new system, Mississippi eChildcare, where parents who receive child care vouchers will have to scan their fingers so the state can track their children’s attendance at daycare and preschool. The Department of Health claims the main use of the system is to better track attendance of children receiving federal vouchers for childcare and “reduce false attendance claims” by childcare providers. However, the new system will make it more difficult for families to access child care. With childcare vouchers already hard to obtain, the difficulty is increased by a new arduous process that requires watching a video about the program and attending a training session at DHS. Aside from the stigma created around families receiving government assistance, this model compromises families’ right to privacy while costing tax payers millions to cover the costs of policing said privacy.
5. RENNIE GIBBS IS STILL FACING MURDER CHARGES.
Rennie Gibbs, who was 15 when she became pregnant, was indicted under Mississippi’s “depraved-heart murder” statute, for taking cocaine while pregnant. If convicted, Gibbs faces a mandatory life sentence because Mississippi prosecutors insist that her drug use caused the stillborn death of her baby even though there is no legitimate, forensic proof that use of narcotics, such as cocaine, can cause stillbirths. There are a number of alternative factors that plagued Gibbs, such as age, race, socioeconomic status, and pre-existing conditions, that are correlated with stillbirth. Further, if Gibbs’ prosecutions are upheld, the precedent will not be limited to pregnant women who use drugs. The precedent set will be that eggs, embryos, and fetuses are persons and that any pregnant woman who was unable to guarantee a healthy birth outcome could be charged with murder or manslaughter. Thereby, judicially enacting personhood.
There you have it! I felt it was important to outline this list because: 1) these issues generally lack widespread media coverage and public outrage and 2) people need to be reminded that these issues are all related and disproportionately impact communities of color. Mississippians can no longer afford to have these conversations continue in isolation. As out-of-towners come into MS to protest the closing of MS’ sole abortion clinic, in honor of Roe’s 40th Anniversary this weekend, I want them to understand the complexities of the reproductive issues in this state and remember white middle class women are not the only ones being adversely implacted. The potential closing of the clinic is not only intentional, but also happening in relation to other anti-choice measures in MS. Mississippians needs long-term support, not activists that want to swoop in superhero-style and “save” us. Truly celebrating Roe means holding our state and federal governments accountable but not at the expense of alienating and silencing the needs of local communities and women, especially women of color.
So, here’s to you Roe, just as they work tirelessly to see you defeated, we will continue fighting to see you upheld. And MS, though many social justice activists use you as the measuring stick for the extent of their successes/failures, I love you deeply and look forward to the day you stop hurting. You motivate my activism, while Roe gives it legal precedent.
[Editor’s Note: more people than just cis women need and want access to affordable reproductive health care, including abortion.]
Originally posted at Still Furious and Still Brave: Who’s Afraid of Persistent Blackness?, cross-posted with author’s permission.
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