On November 8th, 2011, Mississippians will vote on Proposition 26, a ballot measure that, if passed, would alter the state constitution, redefining the word “person” to include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the functional equivalent thereof. While a similar measure was defeated in Colorado by wide margins, in 2008 and again in 2010, many people fear that such a measure could easily pass in Mississippi. What few—in Mississippi or beyond—anticipated was the strong grassroots opposition that has emerged against the measure.
On November 8th, 2011, Mississippians will vote on Proposition 26, a ballot measure that, if passed, would alter the state constitution, redefining the word “person” to include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the functional equivalent thereof. What supporters of Prop 26 aren’t telling you is that if enacted, the measure is likely to hurt ALL pregnant women.
I’m Southern by birth and by education. I am a native Memphian, born and bred in Memphis, TN. I’m also a proud alumnus of the University of Mississippi School of Law. Now, working as a legal advocate in the South, I am both a witness to and a participant in a rising grassroots movement throughout Mississippi.
I can report that unlikely allies from both sides of the traditional “abortion” debate have come together in opposition of Prop 26: mothers of several children born from IVF and women who underwent treatment for ectopic pregnancies; neonatal nurses and bioethics professors; evangelical Christians and clergy; multi-generation Mississippians well into their seventies and student transplants from all over. Representatives from all of these groups have joined together in opposition to Proposition 26.
For example, Atlee Breland, a lifelong Mississippian and Christian mother started the blog, “Parents Against MS 26.” Although she has never considered herself a “pro-choice activist,” she feels strongly about the potential impact of the measure beyond the abortion issue. Ms. Breland herself sought infertility treatment to have her three children, and she is worried about Prop 26’s impact on IVF and similar infertility treatments. Ms. Breland also distinguishes between recognizing and valuing unborn life and granting that life full legal personhood. Her blog helped inspire and create the poignant, now-viral video that moves the debate about Proposition 26 far beyond the issue of abortion.
Another blog entitled “Deep-Fried Freethinkers” has devoted itself to answering tough questions about Prop 26, fact-checking claims made about Prop 26, and investigating the past actions and statements of some of Prop 26’s leading supporters and editorialists.
There are also new Facebook groups whose memberships are growing by the day. One organization out of Jackson, MS, called “Mississippians for Healthy Families,” uses its FB page to generate volunteers for phone banks they are holding at sites across the state, making cold calls to provide information about Proposition 26. These FB groups also provide links to news related to Proposition 26, post information about statewide events, and encourage their members to write comments about editorials, draft letters to the editors of local newspapers, and talk to their communities about the amendment.
Activism in Mississippi, however, is not only taking place on-line, but also in the streets. Rallies opposing Proposition 26 are popping up throughout the state, from Oxford and Starkville to Hattiesburg and Jackson, with more planned as election day approaches. For example, after a successful October 13th rally in Starkville, Mississippi State students will hold a day-long “Dance-In” on November 1, to continue raising awareness about the dangerous implications of Proposition 26.
In Oxford, MS, home to the University of Mississippi, the North Mississippi Women for Progress hosted a “Save the Pill” rally on October 19th on the town square, focusing on how Prop 26 could be used to make a popular form of birth control illegal. A group called “Hell No! on Mississippi 26 and 27” will host a rally at the Mississippi State Capitol Building on Saturday, November 5. This is part of their broader progressive grassroots effort to help defeat Proposition 26 as well as Prop. 27 that would require voters to show government-issued photo identification at the polling place.
Because opposition to Prop 26 is home-grown, organizers know where Mississippians gather and celebrate, and are using these events to pass out pamphlets and stickers urging a “No” vote on the measure. So, activists attended the Mississippi State Fair in Jackson armed with information, and they are planning to do the same at the Peter Anderson Festival in Ocean Springs. And on the weekends, tailgate parties and homecoming games have featured volunteers distributing fact sheets exposing what Proposition 26 is really all about.
In the media, a diverse group of Mississippians are speaking out against Proposition 26. Individuals and organizations from university professors and local feminists, to the Mississippi Medical Association and the Mississippi Nurse’s Association, to the Bishop of Mississippi’s Episcopal Diocese have written commentaries and released statements opposing Proposition 26. Billboards opposing Proposition 26 have gone up along Mississippi’s highways and, even more recently, a concerned Mississippi man, Charles Meyer, took out a quarter-page ad in the Clarion-Ledger newspaper asking the Attorney General to “help save us from ourselves. Anti-abortion legislation should not cost the lives of thousands of innocent Mississippi women.”
In response to growing questions and concerns about Prop 26 University departments, student organizations, and women’s groups have organized a series of Town Hall Discussions to take place across Mississippi, from Oxford to Cleveland to Jackson to Biloxi.
I myself have now had many opportunities to speak with Mississippians all over the state about Proposition 26. I have spoken to students at the University of Mississippi School of Law, met with members of North Mississippi Women for Progress, presented at the International Center for Traditional Childbearing’s Southeast Black Midwives and Healers Summit held in D’lberville, MS, and helped facilitate a panel conversation about Proposition 26 at Delta State University in Cleveland, MS, located in an area of Mississippi famously known as “The Mississippi Delta.” Everywhere I go, I meet people who are hungry to learn more about Proposition 26 and who, regardless of their views on abortion, welcome truthful information and reflective discussion about how this measure could hurt all pregnant women – including those going to term. My commentary summarizing much of these talks was published by the Hattiesburg American last weekend and I expect that a new video about how Prop 26 could hurt all pregnant women will get significant play across the state.
Too often, those unfamiliar with the South assume, based on stigma and prejudice, that there are few, if any, thoughtful, progressive activists in states like Mississippi. In fact, some national comments from people outside of Mississippi and in response to initiatives like Proposition 26 express sentiments similar to those expressed after Hurricane Katrina. They suggested that the solution was for people to leave the state. Similar comments written in response to stories about Proposition 26 say such things as “Women should move out of Mississippi” and “Move to a state that supports individual rights.” But Mississippians are staying and fighting back.
As both a Southerner and a sometime-Mississippian I am actually not at all surprised by the activism that has emerged in response to Proposition 26. I saw a similar emergence after Hurricane Katrina, when individuals and communities across the Gulf Coast stood in solidarity with one another in a commitment to rebuild and renew.
No matter what happens on November 8, it is important to recognize the growing grassroots movement in opposition to Proposition 26. These Southern, home-grown leaders and activists will still be in Mississippi beyond election day, and we must not only recognize them but also encourage and support them if we ever hope to win the long-term struggle for reproductive justice.