Growing up, my half-sister and I lived apart – I, with my mother in Chicago; she, with our father in Memphis. There is a highway connecting the cities that I have ridden countless times. It looks innocuous enough, draped mostly in corn, but I always knew it divided two worlds.
For instance, when my sister graduated from high school, the place of valedictorian was shared between the two females with the highest grade point average and the top two males. The school – a private, Christian school – had taken a picture to commemorate this. My sister was one of those honored, but when she showed me the picture, she was the only girl in it. When I asked why, she laughed, and said the other girl was pregnant and wasn’t allowed in it.
Women are disappearing a lot lately, as their needs are being degraded by conservatives who view such necessities as not the necessities of “good girls”. Several states have voted recently to eliminate or defund Planned Parenthood, which provides birth control and comprehensive sex-education to women, something that would have empowered my sister’s fellow student. Most likely, any “sex-education” she received promoted marriage and abstinence-only. Clearly, those lessons didn’t cut it.
Women’s advocates are sadly accustomed to these attacks, although a new amendment, which is being decided by Mississippi voters Tuesday, breaks new ground in the sidelining of women and their needs. If passed, Initiative 26, or the so-called “personhood amendment”, would deem any fertilised egg “a person” with full legal rights. This would outlaw not only abortion, but birth control, the morning after pill and, irony of all ironies, IVF. But, more tellingly, it could prohibit a doctor from saving a woman’s life if that meant causing the destruction of a fertilised egg inside her. In the law’s eyes, the woman on the operating table would not matter. She would be disappeared.
This simply does not happen in a country that values women. It’s hardly surprising that Mississippi ranks 49th in women’s medium annual earnings and in the percentage of women with four or more years of college. More women live in poverty in the state than anywhere in America. Inequality is like cancer – when untreated, it spreads.
Conservatives are very adept, however, at cloaking discrimination in good manners, in talk of love, God and tradition. They did that to African Americans during Jim Crow, and now they are doing it to women. They want you to believe that with this initiative, they are protecting the most vulnerable among us by defending a good, moral way of life. But if that’s what this is really about, I suggest we put an initiative on the next ballot that forces parents to pony up a lung if their child needs a transplant or, at the very least, requires them to stop smoking around their children. Something tells me this wouldn’t pass muster with most Tea Party supporters.
The truth is, this isn’t about children. One third of Mississippi’s children live in poverty. No one seems to care what happens to children once they leave the womb. Instead, this is about choking women off at arguably the most important moment in their lives – the moment they decide to become mothers. After all, I can think of no other single decision that has such a dramatic impact on a woman’s economic and social standing. The wage gap between working mothers and working women without children is greater than the wage gap between men and women.
The “personhood amendment’s” message is that “good girls” do not have a sexual life free from reproduction – if women want that, they must be prepared to sacrifice an education, a good career, and their peace of mind. If they choose themselves over a child – under any circumstances – they are increasingly labeled shameless, selfish, or even criminal. If this law is passed, a woman who miscarries could have to undergo a criminal investigation to ensure the miscarriage was not her fault. Someone needs to tell Republicans, that’s not love under anyone’s definition.
My hope is that with Proposition 26, conservatives have gone too far – after all, 82% of women have used the pill – but then again, even the Democratic candidate for governor of Mississippi supports the measure, which is expected to pass. And similar initiatives are in the works in Florida, Montana, Ohio, and five other states. It’s probably best not to assume we’re safe.
Instead, it’s time to push back more forcefully. Battered by the right and strapped financially, women’s groups have done an admirable job this past decade. But we need to be blunt. We must remind Americans what it was like for their mothers and grandmothers before abortion and contraception were made legal. And we need to let the country know that we don’t want the same things for ourselves. We don’t want to hide. Or fly to Puerto Rico. Or disappear in some dank room with some fake doctor. And we don’t want these things for our daughters, either.
We should also not be afraid to put a positive spin on abortion. With its existence under constant attack, it is easy to defend it mostly in those worst-case scenarios of rape, incest, or risk to the life of the mother. But access to safe abortions – particularly when contraception is not easily had, as is increasingly the case – has brought relief and opportunities to millions of women in dire situations. This fact doesn’t have to be treated lightly to be properly appreciated. What would be wrong with an ad in which women looked into the camera and told us why they were grateful for their abortions or their birth control pills, for that matter? “Without these things, I may not have gone to college …”, “Or finished high school …”, “Or left an abusive household …”
Finally, we should explain what these rightwing attacks are really about – taking away women’s right to make decisions about their lives. No one’s going after condoms, after all. It’s only when women are in the driver’s seat that conservatives get uneasy.
No doubt, some of these messages would be dismissed as liberal nonsense, but some would seep through. Occupy Wall Street has been criticised ad nauseam for not having a clearly defined message, but they have made big gains all the same – their support has surged from 27% of the population to 36% in just one month. The movement has done this by evoking a “common sense” politics. It may be difficult for the average person to site a specific corporate loophole or a law that needs changing, but most people can still smell a rat. They know inequality when they see it.
Despite the distracting words of conservatives – fertilisation, zygote, cloning! – what’s happening in Mississippi is discrimination pure and simple. I’m hoping voters there can recognise this, or at least remember that, for now, they still vote behind a curtain. Interestingly, of any region in America the South has the highest number of Tea Party supporters, but it also has the highest number of Occupy Wall Street supporters – 34%. Let’s pray they are out in full force Tuesday.