When Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed a patently unconstitutional bill banning nearly all abortions, even in the case of rape or incest, and making doctors liable for murder if they facilitate an abortion, she said the legislation showed that Alabama valued “the sanctity of life.”
What absolute nonsense, what moral gibberish. This legislation doesn’t in the slightest show respect for the sanctity of life. Quite the opposite, it shows scandalous disrespect for the lives, autonomy and well-being of pregnant people — especially poor women who lack the resources to cross state lines and receive abortions in states that haven’t embraced such a Handmaid’s Tale-type vision of society. In voting for such a coercive measure, 25 conservative male state senators effectively diminished the humanity, and denigrated the decision-making capacity, of women in Alabama.
Moreover, a broader look at the living conditions created by a raft of state policies shows the ludicrous nature of Gov. Ivey’s claim that the State of Alabama values “the sanctity of life.” To the contrary, on issue after issue after issue Alabama has locked into place policies that make many of its residents’ lives peculiarly difficult. If the seventeenth century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who famously wrote about how humans needed a social compact in order to avoid a state of nature that was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” were alive today, he might well conclude that Alabama’s vision of social relations merited equally censorious language.
When I was reporting on the criminal legal system years ago, I went into Alabama prisons and interviewed several men who were serving life sentences for nonviolent marijuana offenses. One man I still remember vividly. He had already been in prison for decades. He knew that, absent a miracle, he would stay in prison for many more decades. He had, behind bars, become a wood-carving specialist, making beautiful, intricate boxes. He gave me one. I have it, still, on a bookshelf in my office. When I look at it, I think of the utter futility of his sentence, the shocking cruelty, the lack of empathy behind his punishment.
The sanctity of life? I think not.
Inside those prisons, incarcerated people with HIV/AIDS were treated horrendously. Until 2013, they were segregated in a separate facility, which the ACLU described as being “a sheet-metal warehouse with little protection from the elements.” Incarcerated people were routinely denied treatment for weight loss and vomiting, and, as a result, numerous prisoners with AIDS essentially died of starvation.
There are, of course, many grassroots groups and well-respected institutions that fight for progressive change in Alabama. Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, Alabama Possible, and many others. Their members do extraordinary work. But, despite these growing progressive networks, the state continues to generate remarkably conservative policies.
In recent years, Alabama has been on a tear when it comes to a range of policies that are calculated to make life harder and shorter for its residents. It was one of the earliest states, in 2017, to fully re-implement work requirements, suspended in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, for non-disabled adults applying for food stamps. In the high-poverty counties that had been exempt from work requirements but then re-introduced them, food stamp usage declined 85 percent. Conservative commentators pronounced this a great success. But truth be told, it didn’t reflect a genuine decline in the need for food assistance — it simply reflected a decline in the willingness to provide that food assistance to people living right on the margins, right on the edge of malnutrition and hunger.
In fact, Alabamans are more likely to be left hungry and destitute than are residents of almost any other state in the U.S. More than 800,000 Alabamans, including 250,000 kids, live below the poverty line, producing a poverty rate of upward of 17 percent in the state. That makes it the sixth-poorest state in the country.
Alabama is now at the forefront of attempts to impose a work requirement on Medicaid recipients. There are currently about 1 million Alabamans on Medicaid. If you are of working age and not disabled, you only qualify for coverage if your family income doesn’t rise above 18 percent of the poverty level. That’s less than $250 a month for a family of two. Yet, under Alabama’s proposals, more than 70,000 of these poor, vulnerable people could be kicked off of Medicaid because they are not working.
Of course, when these poor, marginalized Alabamans do find work, there’s a pretty good likelihood it won’t even come close to covering their life expenses. Alabama is one of only five states in the country that doesn’t have its own minimum wage — its legislators haven’t even adopted a state minimum in line with the $7.25 per hour federal minimum wage — meaning that those at the bottom of the economic pyramid have pretty much no legal protections from wage exploitation, with the default protection being the federal minimum wage. Twenty-nine states have minimum wages that are higher than the federal minimum; and most of the remaining states have state laws that guarantee minimum wages that align with the federal minimum. Alabama hasn’t even done that. Were the Feds to get out of the business of guaranteeing a minimum wage tomorrow, low-wage Alabamans would see their already meager wages plummet.
Sanctity of life? Don’t make me laugh.
Not surprisingly, in a state whose political leaders view access to basic medical care as a privilege rather than a right, the infant death rate is shockingly high. In September of last year, the Montgomery Advertiser reported that more than 500 babies born in Alabama in 2016 had died in infancy, generating the highest infant mortality rate in the country. At the back end of life, people also die sooner in Alabama than almost everywhere else in the U.S. A lethal cocktail of poverty, malnutrition and lack of access to health care has resulted in a life expectancy that places Alabama 49th out of all the 50 states. An Alabaman born today can expect to live about three years less than the average for an American.
Additional stresses on Alabamans’ life expectancy come from two other state-specific factors: Alabama has one of the highest gun-fatality rates in the country, and one of the most anti-gun-control legislatures. For every 100,000 Alabamans, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data show that 22.9 will die of gun-related injuries every year; that compares to 7.9 per 100,000 in California. It also has one of the highest car crash fatality rates in the country, and, not coincidentally, is one of the only states in which legislators have consistently failed to pass laws banning handheld cell phones while driving.
Sanctity of life? More like a potpourri of cruel or unthinking policies that, cumulatively, make life tougher and shorter for Alabama residents. Enough said.