As Abortion Restrictions Sweep the South, Look to Southerners to Lead

As Abortion Restrictions Sweep the South, Look to Southerners to Lead

On May 14, the Alabama Senate passed an outright ban on abortion with exceptions only for serious health risks to the pregnant person or a fetal diagnosis incompatible with life. It is the most restrictive anti-abortion measure in the nation, as it classifies abortion as a felony with a punishment of up to 99 years in prison for doctors who perform the procedure. This comes shortly after Georgia joined Kentucky, Mississippi and Ohio in passing a law that bans abortion as early as six weeks.

Since 2011, state legislators across the country have passed more than 400 medically unnecessary and politically motivated restrictions on abortion. But in the last year, we have seen these restrictions grow more extreme. In fact, many proposed — and passed — laws are blatantly unconstitutional. Many have been concentrated in Southern states.

I’m a Black woman who was born in rural Marion, Alabama, a small town in the Alabama Black Belt, which derives its name from the richness of the black soil in those areas, making it ideal land to produce cotton. Alabama has a long history of perpetuating injustice through systemic, institutional and state-sanctioned means, including Jim Crow laws that codified racial segregation, and more recently, the 2018 ballot measure Amendment 2 that altered the state’s constitution to outlaw abortion if Roe v. Wade is overturned. While this latest attempt to make abortion nearly impossible to obtain is alarming, it is not surprising.

What also isn’t surprising is the amount of subtle and not-so-subtle shade being thrown at Southern states by progressives in “blue” states. In a tweet last week, actress Bette Midler called the state of Alabama “cruel,” “backwards,” “benighted” and “pathetic.” A friend of mine recently suggested that Roe v. Wade wouldn’t be in jeopardy if it wasn’t for the South.

Bless your heart.

It’s true that these abortion bans are making it further in the legislative process than ever before because anti-abortion politicians are hoping that the legal challenges against them will reach the Supreme Court now that the political balance of the court has shifted to the right. But that hardly means that, amid these unprecedented attacks on reproductive rights, we ought to turn our backs on the people of the South — people who, for decades, have been deliberately disenfranchised, silenced and suppressed by a racist political establishment invested in white supremacy.

It’s a common stereotype of the South and the people who live there that we are “backwards,” that we’re especially or uniquely racist. It’s a fact that between 1880 and 1950, at least one African American was lynched per week, on average. Over the course of the 20th century, the “Great Migration” saw millions of African Americans leave the South to escape this terror and violence and seek greater freedom. Of course, not all Black people left. Those who chose to remain in the South have long worked to expose the racial inequities and violence they faced. That activism evolved into the civil rights movement.

So, of course, I don’t deny a Southern history steeped in injustice. But out of that injustice has been born a resilience and a resistance that we should look to as a model for how to move forward, no matter where we live. Marginalized people in the South — including women, people of color and LGBTQ folks — have long been fighting oppression on all fronts, often under the most extreme and violent conditions. We can look to Southerners like my late grandmother Lizzie Kelly, who was beaten alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rep. John Lewis while fighting for the right to vote. As long as injustice has been present in the South, so have the activists fighting against it.

Today, I continue the legacy of intersectional Southern activism that began with activists such as my grandmother years ago. I do this work through my organization, URGE: Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity. URGE — specifically our state organizers, canvassers and chapter leaders — work alongside other partner organizations and abortion funds in the South, such as Spark Reproductive Justice Now!, Inc.; SisterLove; SisterSong; National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum; Yellowhammer Fund; P.O.W.E.R. House; National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health; and so many more that intentionally center and are led by young people, people of color, immigrants and LGBTQ folks, and work to improve the lives of those that our state lawmakers have left behind.

In 2011, Mississippi voters rejected a constitutional amendment that would have legally defined human life as beginning at fertilization. The margin for defeat was wide, with 58 percent of the state voting against it, all because a strong coalition of medical providers and national and grassroots organizations came together to mobilize voters.

Last year, when Alabama put Amendment 2 on the ballot, URGE talked to and organized thousands of young people in the state. Although the measure ultimately passed, two of three counties that we worked in voted against it and it’s clearer than ever that young people are passionate and ready to lead. Young people have been loud and proud about abortion access in the South and Midwest by talking to legislators, strategizing with partners, and hosting #AbortionPositive tours in red and purple states, including Alabama, where hundreds of young people took the pledge to be abortion positive.

Grassroots organizations have been speaking out about the state of abortion access for years. The Yellowhammer Fund is the local abortion fund in Alabama and provides support to people who are seeking abortion care but struggling with financial and logistical obstacles.

People in the South, especially people of color, have been fighting for reproductive justice for years. One of my best friends, Jilisa Milton, has not only earned her Master of Social Work and Juris Doctor from the University of Alabama, but for years has organized in the Birmingham chapter of Black Lives Matter, fighting against police brutality. She has also worked with the Equal Justice Initiative, founded by Bryan Stevenson, to fight against mass incarceration of Black and Brown people and racial equity.

These are just some of the loudest voices fighting injustice in the South.

Rather than erase Southern activists and organizations, especially grassroots organizations, celebrities and progressives in less extreme political environments should look to us to lead. Anti-abortion politicians aren’t going to stop trying to roll back our rights any time soon. But we know what it’s like to face impossible odds, and we will continue the legacy of the activists who came before us.

We’re not backwards, and we won’t be demoralized. We’ll keep fighting for the ability of each and every one of us, regardless of where we live, to live with dignity and thrive.