As a Mississippian, I have watched government officials, church leaders, anti-choice activists, and citizens fight tirelessly to criminalize abortion in my home state. Though I am grateful for the positive impact Roe v. Wade has had for women across the nation, I can’t help but find celebrating its 40th anniversary bittersweet. In Mississippi, we sorely lack meaningful and sustainable help in the fight for full reproductive justice for poor families and women of color. To add insult to injury, while Mississippi continues to be a battleground over women’s rights, pro-choice discourse and activism surrounding the state too often implies that we are “backwards.”
Mississippians can no longer afford to have these conversations continue in isolation. As out-of-towners come into Mississippi this weekend to protest the closing of our sole abortion clinic, I want them to understand the complexities of the reproductive issues in this state and remember that white, middle class women are not the only ones impacted.
In observance of this day and in solidarity with my people in Mississippi, I have compiled a list of issues that demonstrate the intentional undermining of Roe v. Wade in the state—by making abortion inaccessible, and creating stigma around women’s sexual and reproductive choices.
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 obstetricians and gynecologists with privileges to admit patients to a local hospital may perform abortions. It is no secret that Bryant’s personal goal is to make Mississippi an “abortion-free” state; the doctors at the lone abortion clinic do not have those privileges (which, according to them, are not’ medically necessary). Though a U.S. district judge temporarily blocked the state law on July 1, 2012, the abortion clinic remains under threat of closure.
2. Teenagers are blamed for abstinence-only sex ed’s failure.
Mississippi retains the highest teen pregnancy rates in the nation, yet many school districts teach abstinence-only courses, and it is illegal for teachers to instruct students on how to use contraceptives. Despite these institutional shortcomings, Governor Bryant told reporters he believes that “the problem is teenagers do not care enough” 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 favors 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 end up being on Medicaid—CHIPS and Medicaid and food stamps the rest of your life—if you never want to have a career, then all you’ve got to do is drop high school and have a baby…And I can almost assure you that’s what’s going to happen to you.”
3. Despite its failure in 2011, personhood legislation is back to haunt Mississippi.
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 that of the fetus. Fifty-five percent of the voters rejected this dangerous, precedent-setting initiative.
But the fight for personhood legislation 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 that exact moment. Adapting their strategy since the previous personhood campaign, anti-choice legislators (like good ol’ Andy) have 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.” Still, the measure is no less dangerous. If passed, Mississippi will battle personhood on the ballot once again in 2014.
Unfortunately, personhood is not the only upcoming anti-choice. Governor 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 take away women’s rights by any means.
4. Low-income families’ human rights are being compromised.
Sometime this year, Mississippi will implement a new system, Mississippi eChildcare, where families who receive childcare vouchers will have to use a finger scan so the state can track 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 childcare. 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 stillbirth. 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.
The list goes on. Which remind me yet again, that Mississippians need long-term support, not activists who 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 Mississippi, though many social justice activists use you as the measuring stick for the extent of their successes and failures, I love you deeply and look forward to the day you stop hurting. You motivate my activism, while Roe gives it legal precedent.
Jazmine Walker is a participant in the Strong Families’ project, Echoing Ida. She lives and works in North Carolina for Rural Support Partners. Her personal blog is Furious and Brave. Follow her on Twitter @JAZonyaMine.