I came to Jackson as a part of the project on sexual education, religion and public policy. But, the truth is a much wider net had to be cast. I couldn’t talk about sex-ed without talking about contraception. I couldn’t talk about contraception without talking about abortion. Abortion is inextricably linked to the larger cycle of social justice, poverty, women’s rights and what I came to Mississippi to look into, sex-ed.
I had been to Mississippi three times for this project (but, having lived in New Orleans years ago, I’s also been to Mississippi many times). The most recent time for nearly a month, just as Christmas was approaching, and when Sandy Hook happened.
We went to an ugly sweater party that night. My proper southern host -turned-friend Betty and I forced ourselves to go. We had to do something aside from watching the horror coming out of Connecticut.
The debate began immediately in the media. It was about guns. It was about mental health and six-year olds riddled with bullet holes still inside Sandy Hook elementary. It wasn’t time to talk about guns, bit it was time. It was mental illness, it was violent television and movies, it was a society that sat for hours in front of video games like Call of Duty shooting people in the face. It was a time for national mourning. It wasn’t about the guns.
Our discourse about anything of import in the U.S. media misses the point over and over again. Guns are a fine example, one we have flirted with every mass shooting.
But, abortion is no different. Recently, an article in the New York Times referred to the “debate” over Roe. Debate? There is no debate. Forty years ago women were guaranteed the right to an abortion. That is the truth, that is the law.
In Mississippi, however, abortion is dangerously close to becoming – in practice – illegal. The Jackson Women’s Health Clinic is close to being shut down. The last free-standing abortion clinic serving largely poor women could be shuttered in the coming weeks.
Our conversation shouldn’t be around the legality of abortion – the anti-choicers have made that a discussion. They have forced their religious views into the mainstream, rooted in a belief that “life” begins before a woman’s egg makes it out of the fallopian tube (based on “science” created by kindred spirits) supported in footnotes leading back to “proof” from The Heritage Foundation or other far right-wing organizations. Much like the abstinence only until marriage industry tries to justify its existence, there are no studies that prove their efficacy, no matter how many footnotes they pepper end pages with. People who believe in choice have allowed the religious ravings of a loud few (albeit in your face in the front of clinic or in the halls of state and local government) to cloud the issue. There is nothing wrong with their religious convictions. But it is where the religious predilections of those in power marginalize an entire group of people we run into problems. Serious ones.
So what should this supposed “debate” over abortion be about? I would suggest enforcement of The FACE Act is a good place to start. The FACE Act could be expanded or re-interpreted to include the legion of anti-choice activists that terrorize women in front of abortion providers every day. Defending a woman’s right to abortion with the same voracity as some scream about the Second Amendment would be another option. How about mandatory reporting of the mentally ill and violent protestors who threaten abortion providers and staff? As we learned after Dr. Tiller was shot dead, his murderer was no stranger to authorities but ultimately nothing was done to protect him. Perhaps demanding a national database of people who threaten abortion providers?
Another debate those in the feminist community can and should be having is about clinic escorts. When I was at the Jackson Women’s Health Clinic there were right-to-lifers out front chasing down young women as they entered the clinic (indeed, as I approached, a woman approached me and told me “you don’t have to do this”). Until we get the local and federal government to protect abortion providers there should be escorts at every clinic every day. In New York City, there are a couple of escort training sessions coming up.
The radical right did pro-choice advocates a service in the last few years by bringing to the floors of state and national legislatures the most radical and ridiculous measures to restrict access to abortion. It exposed them. Laid bare their desire for political gain over the rights of women. We are more free to publicly challenge abject nuttery as in Virginia with forced transvaginal ultrasounds or the resounding defeat of the “personhood” legislation in Mississippi.
But Mississippi is in danger. Women in Mississippi are in danger. What will Mississippi do in a post-abortion services world? What planning has begun to ensure right to safe, legal abortions? An underground railroad to neighboring states? Abortion tourism?
If we think about guns in the U.S. and the debate surrounding that, it is helpful to look at the pro-gun lobby’s rhetoric. A frequent refrain is that more guns in the hands of the “good guys” will cancel out the “bad guys.” It’s a catchy meme: The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. Another argument against reasonable gun control is that it penalizes the good gun owner, the responsible adult who locks up his or her munitions away from children, the hunters and mountain people often referred to when a case is being made. And another argument (language of which is easily adapted to the pro-choice arsenal) is that open access to guns is guaranteed, if not sacred. Can’t that argument be made for the 14th amendment as well as the Second?
Recently, New York posted a map covered in tiny red dots. Each red dot represented a gun owner. There was a collective public flip out at the posting of publicly available information – gun licenses are a matter of public record. But, when anti-choicers wanted posters of abortion providers with their home addresses, make and model of their car and park out front of their homes, well that’s just their right.
If we protected our women and their right to privacy with respect to their reproductive health the way we defend our right to have a trunkful of guns there wouldn’t be a debate. If we valued our women, their intelligence and autonomy (including our religious freedom to not be bound to yours) as much as we value our guns, I mean, just think!
Guest contributor Andy Kopsa is a writer based in New York City. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including Ms. Blog, Religion Dispatches, RH Reality Check and The American Independent. She is a native Iowan and former Iowa newspaper editor. She blogs at Off The Record and you can find her on Twitter @andykopsa. This essay is cross-posted with permission from her site, Mississippi: Religion in Policymaking and its impact on Sex Education, Teen Pregnancy and Poverty, where she is chronicling her research on that state’s new mandate to teach sex education in public schools and the sufficiency of that curricula.