Features » September 26, 2007
An Unholy Alliance
Across the Deep South, religion, culture and politics collide to make ‘abortion’ a dirty word.
Every Wednesday and Friday morning, two or three volunteers wearing bright green shirts that read “Pro-Choice, Y’all” assemble in front of Reproductive Health Services in Montgomery, Ala., to escort patients from the parking lot to the front door, past a small sea of anti-abortion protesters.
The protesters carry handmade signs and pictures of fetuses sucking their thumbs. They play violins and blow loudly into horns. They thrust graphic pamphlets at the patients, form prayer circles on the sidewalk, and teach their children to plead with women to not murder their babies. The protesters are mostly women. They look like Sunday school teachers, housewives and hip grandmas. And, during the past few months, they have grown more vocal and more organized, emboldened by the recent closure of the only clinic in Mobile.
Every state in the Deep South–Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina–restricts low-income women’s access to abortion. Most ban abortion after 12 weeks of pregnancy. None explicitly protect heath care facilities from harassment or violence. All have mandatory delay laws that unfairly burden women who have limited access to transportation and time off work, and Louisiana and South Carolina both passed unconstitutional laws requiring a husband’s consent for a married woman’s abortion. In the past 16 months, two abortion clinics in Alabama have closed, and new regulations are making it difficult for other clinics to stay open. Now, anti-abortion groups are strategizing ways to outlaw birth control and eliminate sex education.
Michelle Colon, president of the National Organization for Women’s (NOW) Mid-South region (Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee) calls it a “war on women”–the gravity of which citizens in more progressive parts of the country don’t appreciate. “The rest of the country kind of writes off the South–people feel the battle has been lost here,” Colon says.
Colon is part of a vocal, scrappy cadre of grassroots activists challenging the well-funded, entrenched anti-abortion movement that has long dominated state legislatures and local pulpits across the region. One Southern feminist put it this way: “Women here are sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
“It’s not legal, is it?”
Every morning when June Ayers arrives for work, she scans the parking lot for suspicious people and packages before getting out of her car. Ayers owns Reproductive Health Services, one of seven clinics that provide abortions in Alabama. She’s been followed home, trailed at the mall and harassed on her front porch.
Ayers was close friends with David Gunn, a doctor who performed abortions at clinics throughout Alabama and Florida. Anti-abortion protesters plastered Gunn’s face and home phone number to “Wanted” posters and distributed them at rallies. He answered their harassment by blasting Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down”, singing along, and wagging his finger in their direction. In March 1993, Gunn died when a protester shot him three times in the back outside of his clinic in Pensacola, Fla. The doctor on Ayers’ staff now wears a bulletproof vest.
Ayers recently invested in a sprinkler system to keep the protesters at bay. She has also installed concrete stepping-stones across the lawn so patients and escorts can avoid the protesters crowding the sidewalk. She bought orange vests for the escorts, so startled patients can distinguish between protesters and volunteers.
“At least once a month, I have women who call me and ask whether abortion is legal. That type of misinformation is rampant,” says Ayers. “We’re in the middle of the Bible Belt. It’s not just religion, it’s the fanatical religious aspect that keeps stirring people up who are opposed to us.”
It’s a place where the Christian Coalition holds sway over politicians, and many people vote the way they’re told in church. The legislative climate is “very hostile” toward abortion, says Felicia Brown Williams, who oversees Planned Parenthood’s advocacy agenda in Mississippi, one of two states with only one abortion clinic.
Mississippi has passed so many laws governing what abortion clinics can and cannot do that it is virtually impossible to open a second clinic without breaking state law. Mississippi requires permission from both parents for women under 18, except in cases of incest. The state’s conscience clause allows pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions for birth control. And earlier this year the Mississippi legislature passed a “trigger law,” immediately making abortion illegal should Roe v. Wade be overturned.
From ‘pro choice’ to ‘reproductive justice’
In the early-1990s, researcher Loretta Ross noticed the anti-abortion movement was borrowing tactics from the Ku Klux Klan–things like “Wanted” posters and targeted bombings. Ross now directs SisterSong, a national reproductive health collective in Atlanta. She travels the country, encouraging groups like Planned Parenthood to adopt a philosophy that SisterSong terms “reproductive justice.”
“Stopping at the right to terminate a pregnancy is woefully inadequate when it comes to the realities of people of color,” Ross says. “We have to fight for three different dimensions of the struggle: We join our pro-choice sisters to fight for the right not to have a child; but as women of color, we have been subjected to various strategies of population control, like forced sterilization, so we also have to fight for the right to have a child, especially in the context of people accusing us of having babies to get on welfare or to stay in the country. And we have to fight for the right to parent the children we already have, thanks to a criminal justice system that’s trying to capture them earlier and earlier.”
Moving from “pro-choice” to “reproductive justice” may prove crucial in the Deep South–home to a fast-growing Latino population–and towns like Montgomery, Ala., which is about 50 percent black.
“There is an unholy alliance between the legislators who oppose civil rights and the legislators who oppose reproductive rights,” Ross says. “As long as we look at reproductive rights only as the politics of gender, we will be missing the guiding script.”
Each year, Operation Save America (OSA) targets different clinics across the United States. Last summer, the group traveled to Jackson, Miss., for a weeklong “siege” to temporarily shut down the state’s only abortion clinic. OSA members, who compare themselves to Martin Luther King Jr., liken abortion to black genocide and lynching. While the anti-abortion movement has made inroads with some black churches, OSA’s references to lynching and Rev. King went too far.
Jackson’s abortion rights community mobilized to protect the last clinic in Mississippi. With volunteers coming from as far as Canada, they organized a door-knocking campaign, traversing Jackson’s communities of color and poor white communities, educating residents about OSA.
Abortion rights supporters from across the South flooded Jackson that week, in a series of counter-rallies and speak-outs called Reproductive Freedom Summer. OSA’s tactics–burning a Gay Pride flag and pages of the Koran, and picketing two Christian churches–created a local uproar. The clinic stayed open.
So goes the nation
Other states, like New York or Wisconsin, have achieved a kind of equilibrium, with a mass of vocal supporters on both sides. Outside of cities like Atlanta, this isn’t true of the Deep South.
“People are afraid to be seen at pro-choice events for fear of losing their jobs, or being rejected from church, or their kids being ostracized at school,” says Colon, of Mid-South NOW. In some places in the South, abortion is referred to as the “A word”; and many women, upon arriving for an abortion, tell clinic staff they think abortion is wrong.
“Most of the time, women think they actually deserve the ridicule and harassment from the street protesters,” says Ayers, from the Montgomery clinic. “It’s self-punishment: ‘I deserve to be accosted, because this is the choice I’m making.’”
Last year, Deirdra Harris Glover realized her silence implied tacit approval of Mississippi’s proposed abortion ban. So Glover, an admitted “professional geek,” launched ProChoiceMississippi.org to encourage closeted abortion rights supporters to come out. “Shame is an incredibly dehumanizing tactic used by the anti-abortion movement,” Glover wrote in an email. “They’ve managed to paint abortion as too awful to ever be dragged into the light of day.”
The Deep South’s reproductive rights community has few political allies. In Mississippi and Louisiana, Democrats run on anti-choice platforms. “We don’t have any judges on our side. We don’t have many in the media on our side,” says Colon. “The pro-choice allies in the state legislature are the older black men. The women in the legislature sell us out every time.”
And yet thinking that anti-choice zealotry is only an issue south of the Mason-Dixon line is a mistake. Laws restricting women’s access to healthcare have chipped away at abortion rights in almost every state. In fact, only seven states have laws protecting the right to an abortion.
“In some ways, the South is behind; but in some ways, the South is dictating the rest of the country,” says Ross, of SisterSong. “There wouldn’t be a resurgent right-wing if the rest of the country wasn’t becoming Dixie-fied.”
Colon adds: “If we lose the South, the middle of the country won’t be long.”