This post is part of our week-long series on the personal impact of the current state of reproductive health, rights, and justice.
by Betsy Phillips
I just finished reading Jazmine Walker’s post on the ways Roe v. Wade is undermined in Mississippi and her discussion of stigma got me thinking about a weirdness that keeps cropping up in Tennessee. I’ve heard from both people in the Delta (the northwestern part of Mississippi) and in Memphis that there’s a belief that, even if there’s no way to get an abortion in Mississippi, women who “really need” one can always go to Memphis or Atlanta.
The funny/terrible part is that here in Tennessee I have had politicians and their staffs tell me to my face on several occasions that they can’t understand why I’m so worked up about abortion rights, after all women who “really need” them can go to Atlanta, even if they’re impossible to get here (So, hopefully someone is telling the women in North Mississippi to not get too comfortable depending on us).
There’s something going on here. Well, there’s a lot of somethings going on here. But some are easier to recognize than the one I want to try to understand. I think it’s immediately obvious how “Well, just go to Atlanta” works to effectively make getting an abortion impossible for anyone who, you know, can’t afford to go to Atlanta, or who can’t take that many days off work or school. The class issues are pretty self-apparent.
There’s also a slightly less-obvious idea that, since you want to do this “terrible, evil” thing, you should have to sojourn to this “terrible, evil” place in order to do it. If you’re not from the region, you’re probably not aware of how Atlanta is framed in our many cultural narratives–especially because, on a national level, Atlanta is celebrated as a really cool city full of interesting people where neat cultural things are happening. But here, Atlanta is talked about pretty much like its two defining characteristics are it being a scary, confusing hellhole and being too much like a Northern city. I’m sure that, now that you know that’s the cultural narrative about the city, you can make informed guesses as to why that might be. (Hint: One reason is that lot of black people live there and have a ton of economic and political power. The other is that it has a visible, thriving GLBT community, which, of course, has its problems but is much safer for GLBT kids, especially, than other Southern communities tend to be, so GLBT people have, historically, moved there in great numbers. Memphis also has these qualities.)
But I want to try to get at something a little different–and that’s how much this hardline anti-abortion stance contains within it this strange safety-valve. They want abortion to be impossible to get in Mississippi or in Tennessee. And they will accomplish that by pointing out that you can still get an abortion in Atlanta. The first time I encountered this, I thought it was a dodge, because, of course, anti-abortion activists want to make abortion illegal throughout the country. Just because you can get an abortion in Atlanta now doesn’t mean you’d be able to if anti-abortion people got their way.
But I’ve heard it enough now, and from people who I think sincerely believe what they’re saying–that they should be allowed to make abortion illegal in Tennessee and I should go ahead and let them because it wouldn’t affect me because I could always go to Atlanta (never mind the women in Mississippi who are being told this about Memphis. I guess I’m not supposed to care about them.)–that I think it means something.
I’m not sure what, though. Do they honestly not believe that they will ever completely succeed at their cause? So there will always be places women can get legal safe abortions? That seems weird. And, even if they do believe it, why would they use that as a selling point for their anti-abortion activities? Do they just want to make abortion something that happens in “bad” places?
Or maybe the problem is something like this: they’ve looked at the number of people who have abortions in our states and they realize that not all of those people are publicly pro-choice? In other words, “their” women are still having abortions, despite how supposedly morally terrible it is. So, since they can’t keep “their” women from having abortions just by making it hard to get and framing it as morally wrong, are they trying to link “having an abortion” in “their” women’s minds with going to this “terrible, decadent” place where racial and/or gender norms are uncomfortably subverted? (There’s also something important about the urban/rural divide going on here, especially when the framing is “North Mississippi/Memphis,” but I don’t have a good grasp on it.)
Is the same statement, “You could just go to Atlanta,” supposed to be read by some people as “Get over it. Your rights aren’t being trampled on that hard,” while it’s heard by other people as “Do you really want to flout every single social structure we’ve put in place here to keep you safe?” In other words, if they can’t keep women from having abortions by repeatedly pointing out how it subverts the “natural roles” of women, are they trying to make it so women who want abortions not only have to go against how they’ve been brought up to think about gender and gender roles, but against how they’ve been brought up to think about class, race, place, and sexual orientation?
Just in writing this, and trying to clarify my thoughts, I think this may be what is going on. It’s like a fun-house mirror of intersectionality in that it acknowledges that all of these things–gender, race, class, sexual orientation, etc.–work together and then tries to play on the idea that, therefore, if you believe in the right to control what happens to your own body, you, by default, believe in all these other “terrible” things. (I wish!)
To get back to Walker’s point, it’s like, if the stigma of having an abortion isn’t enough to keep you from doing it, the anti-abortion strategy is to try to invoke the pressure of all these other stigmas as well, and to do so through the threat/promise of Atlanta.
[Editor's Note: more people than just cis women need and want access to affordable reproductive health care, including abortion.]
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