Robin Marty is reporting from Jackson, Mississippi this week.
For the activists on both sides of the abortion debate, as well as those in the national media who are invested in the outcome of a state being completely without a public abortion provider, Jackson, Mississippi is the epicenter for what could be a moment that changes the history of reproductive rights.
On the other hand, the residents of Jackson aren’t nearly as interested.
Two sets of foes met on Saturday to engage in what is bound to be a common sight for the next few days at Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Anti-choice protesters gathered on the sidewalk, holding a “religious service” while reproductive rights activists surrounded the clinic holding signs defending a woman’s right to determine their futures. The protesters were mostly out-of-towners brought in from Operation Save America, and the clinic defenders were primarily recruited from adjacent states, too.
To find the locals, you would have had better luck looking inside the clinic.
The 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade is passing with little reflection in the city that is often viewed as the front-line of the abortion wars. If asked directly, the average Jackson citizen isn’t likely to have much to say regarding women’s reproductive rights. Abortion is an issue that they consider mostly settled in the state, where most believe in a stark “dead babies or live babies” absolutism and know which side of that line they fall on.
“The ordinary citizen of Jackson, if I called them up and said ‘Let’s talk about this issue,’ would say, ‘I am anti-abortion and I don’t want to talk about it.’ It’s black and white,” a woman told me in an interview.
Bringing up the topic head on is likely to get you shut down, the otherwise unflappable southern hospitality rescinded for a moment until the topic can be politely but firmly changed and no opening for debate or discussion is acknowledged as a possibility.
While the legislature seeks out ways to end access to safe abortion care for good (while at the same time not concerning themselves with policies that would either prevent it in the first place or supporting the new mothers after the fact), the general population isn’t following the news surrounding the clinic’s potential closure—or its potentially historical significance—at all.
Even those who are following the saga aren’t speaking out much in defence of JWHO. Like the global gag rule that falls on family planning advocacy organizations, refusing to allow them funding if they so much as mention abortion, or the more local versions of state legislatures pulling funding directly from any group that even refers for the procedure, those in Jackson who do believe women and teens should have access to safe, legal abortion services find themselves unable to speak out publicly about the issue.
Those who have ties to the government in any way—either a concern that their non-profit might lose funding, a contract might be lost, business boycotted, a new project dismissed or a political appointment shunted—find themselves intimidated into this cone of silence that passes as acceptance of the legislature’s anti-choice, anti-woman agenda. The people who have less to lose by government pressure can be silenced by another means. They are afraid, too, although not afraid of violence or outright intimidation. Despite the increasing hostility that is seen in other low-access states, where doctors are picketed at their homes, or even the obsessive attention of the militant activism of Operation Save America, few of the reproductive rights supporters say that they feel concerned about potential violence breaking out.
“This big fear out here isn’t violence, it’s social stigma,” explained one activist, who for that reason asked that her name not be used. “There isn’t anyone out here who can support the clinic publicly without facing some sort of personal repercussions.”
That concern was obvious in the people to whom I spoke. One woman who supported the clinic asked that I not identify her because she was beginning a new project in the arts unrelated to any sort of social issues, but was still concerned that being identified could effect their fundraising efforts.
She told me of a world where vocal anti-abortion sentiment colors everything in the political arena, where current and aspiring lawmakers use it to make their names and win support, regardless of the actual impact it would have in their potential roles if they win their races. She mentioned a friend of her daughter who ran for treasurer, who was highly qualified in his own right, who made sure that his views on opposing abortion was listed high in his reasons for running for office.
“It’s a sort of television activism,” she she explained of the anti-choice activism in the city. “It’s like the moments you see on tv where everyone gathers together to wish off a soldier, and the wife and children are crying and everyone stands up and applauds the soldier. That is useless to the soldier. He comes back maimed, he can’t make a living, who cares that he got applauded when he got on the airplane. It’s armchair activism, it’s done for the cameras. It’s not real life.”
With abortion opposition a publicly embraced default, those who aren’t as enthused about making everyone else’s personal and medical choices for them are less willing to speak out about the issue. “I think there are tons of people like myself who just don’t bring it up. You just don’t fight the battle.”
The inability to speak out in favor of reproductive rights colors not just the abortion debate, but the policy debate around teen pregnancy and prevention. It is nearly impossible to address the issue in any meaningful way when you fear repercussions from a state government adamant in punishing “sinning” through state laws. The Mississippi state legislature’s approved approach to battling teen pregnancy evokes memories of Dr. John Willke’s sixties guide to teaching teens about sex, which advocated banning drive-in movies due to their potential as pits of wanton lust. Sex-ed in the state is such where condoms can be viewed as long as the packages aren’t opened, described but not demonstrated. One supporter of comprehensive sex ed explained the rules: no live or filmed demonstration of how to put on a condom can be shown in a classroom. Pictures are allowed, but less effective. My question on whether a multiple pictures could be put together and riffled through quickly like a homemade flip book would break the rules was met with laughter, but no definitive answer either way.
Abstinence-only education is its own religion, a feverent belief that if left with no ability to have safe sex, teens won’t have any sex at all, just like if offered no place to have an abortion, women will give up and carry to term.
In some ways, it may be a fair belief. Carrying to term without necessarily wanting another child is likely to happen already even with the clinic open. Those are the situations that are making an even greater impact on a state that already suffers from the highest poverty rate in the nation. The children of Mississippi have the lowest quality of life in the nation according to the 2012 “Kids Count” survey, and the same legislature that is obsessed with the “health and safety” of women to the point where they have made up unnecessarly regulations for doctors who provide abortions at the same time are ignoring the safety and well-being of the children that come into this world, regardless of whether their births were intended or not.
So how do you talk about a subject that is so obviously taboo? How do you open up a conversation about women’s autonomy, privacy, and health in a community that believes that “private” issues should be just that—something polite people don’t discuss in public?
It’s not impossible. The citizens of Mississippi defied all expectations and voted down Amendment 26, a so-called personhood law, refusing to grant legal rights to fertilized eggs. When presented with consequences if so-called “personhood” were made law, including the banning of birth control, women dying of ectopic pregnancies, and the potential end of some fertility treatments, the public took a firm stance on the side of women over zygotes. Mississippi voters were ready to speak publicly about reproductive freedom and the rights of women, and they supported both.
The “Vote No” campaign succeeded not just in retaining the rights of women and families in the face of an anti-choice agenda, but in finding a way to talk about reproductive rights without using a language of “abortion” or “choice.” Instead, it flipped the rhetoric of traditional abortion opponents on its head. “Personhood” became the controversial issue, and voting it down was maintaining the status quo.
Amendment 26 failed not because it banned abortion, but it tried to tell Mississippians how they were allowed to create their families—without birth control, without fertility treatments and without the ability to act preventvely to save a pregnant women’s life it it would be put in danger.
To keep abortion accessible in Mississippi, the zealous anti-choice legislature is only one facet of the problem. The bigger issue will be finding an acceptable way to discuss abortion. To come at it through the lens of family planning, as familial privacy, or in another way that defuses the heavy, controversial overtones implied in the word “abortion” itself.