Personhood and race: inextricably linked

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Jazmine Walker
Graduate Student, Department of Sociology
University of Mississippi
Former SisterSong Intern
On November 8, 2011, Mississippians were faced with a seemingly simple question on their ballot, “Should the term 'person' be defined to include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the functional equivalent thereof?” However, it had far reaching consequences that would disproportionately impact women of color.

Though this was a fact that any reproductive justice activist would immediately recognize, that message was gradually pushed to the margins by mainstream pro-choice organizations in order to convince ultra-conservatives that Personhood is not the means to end abortions in the state, but a dangerous initiative that would impact [white] women's fertility issues and choices, subsequently silencing the experiences of women of color in the state.

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 illegal substances, such as cocaine, can cause stillbirths. There are a number of alternative factors such as age, race, socioeconomic status, pre-existing conditions, that are correlated with stillbirth. Gibbs had many of those risk factors.  These kinds of charges ignore the intersectionality of race and class where many women of color, like Gibbs, do not have access to prenatal care, transportation to regularly see a doctor, or health insurance at all.

I bring up Gibbs because she was not deemed respectable enough to be brought up during mainstream campaigning efforts. Though this is an ongoing case in the state, images of white women who were rape victims and/or wives with fertility issues became the "faces" of why Mississippians should vote no. There were hardly any black stories told, and aside from a token face here and there, they were rarely shown. There was no push to make Amendment 26 relevant in the lives of people of color, especially its troubling relationship with Amendment 27. In the push to convince conservative white men and women that Amendment 26 was a bad initiative, black, Latina, Asian, and indigenous women were alienated and left out of the discourse.

Lastly, though I applaud the mainstream movement for their efforts, I found myself working with and volunteering for individuals who adamantly thought Mississippians were "backwards." They were in Mississippi, working alongside Mississippians, but many of their elitist standpoints prevented them from learning from Mississippians, and caused them to ignore our basic needs.

If it weren't for the many grassroots efforts from groups like "Hell No 26 &27," I am not sure how intersectional issues of race and class would have been addressed in a public sphere. When an initiative like 26 threatens the reproductive rights of women, specifically their reproductive choices, the term “abortion” should not be considered taboo. Instead of facing the fact that abortion in this state is directly correlated with other social justice issues such as racism, unemployment, lack of educational opportunities or welfare subsidies, etc., mainstream pro-choice movements decided to deflect this discourse altogether, by only talking about abortion in relation to ectopic pregnancies or terminal illness.

We did have a victory in the state of MS, but we cannot continue to alienate communities of color, in order to make white conservatives, who consider themselves pro-life. Though it was repeated mantra, “You can be pro-life and vote no,” a reproductive justice framework was not offered as to why this could be so. You can be pro-life and advocate for the basic human rights of your fellow Mississippians, so that abortion will not be the optimal choice for folks who feel they do not have any other options. You can be pro-life and advocate for comprehensive sex education, instead of abstinence-plus that is being taught in our schools, so that our teens will know how to protect yourselves. A “pro-lives” framework was hardly encouraged by the mainstream movement and Initiative 26 was a perfect time to encourage those dialogues in open spaces, but they continued to happen in small, intimate settings, as they always have.

Once again, our state or federal government were not openly held accountable, but in trying to deflect from a comprehensive conversations about the reproductive lives of women in the state of Mississippi, or even the nation, they simply tried to keep those stories silent. Because of that Personhood USA has packed up and have simply moved to Florida. The only way to truly stop Personhood USA from continuing their anti-abortion crusade, these conversations must happen. We must allow Rennie Gibbs and the countless other women and girls who are a small byline in the paper be brought to the center. So, we won a small victory in MS, but I know that the fight for reproductive justice and true reproductive justice framework in the mainstream movement continues.