Racist Voter Suppression Made Alabama’s Abortion Ban Possible

Voting Rights photo
Labor unions and progressive organizations protest on Capitol Hill, September 16, 2015, for the restoration of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

By Sabrina Joy Stevens, Truthout

I was devastated when I saw the news that Alabama passed a near-total abortion ban set to take effect in six months if not challenged. My husband is from Alabama, and it’s a place I’ve come to love as well. Yet it’s impossible not to consider how different our lives would be right now if the difficult pregnancy I experienced at the beginning of our romantic relationship had happened in his home state instead of my own, New York.

A little less than six years ago, I found myself excitedly holding a positive pregnancy test. Though the timing was sooner than expected, we were fortunate to have the emotional and economic security that allowed us to look forward to welcoming a new baby into our family the following spring. That excitement was soon tempered by more anxiety and pain than I would ever have predicted. As a healthy woman in my late 20s, I somewhat naively expected everything to go smoothly. So I was terrified when I experienced a threatened miscarriage in my first trimester, and crushed when I made it through that only to experience even more problems in my second. At 19 weeks, during a bloody and intensely traumatic emergency room visit, we learned that there was virtually no chance I’d be able to successfully continue the pregnancy. So, like one in four women in the U.S., I had an abortion.

Though heartbroken, I was also lucky to be able to seamlessly transfer to the hospital’s family planning unit and have the procedure I needed to preserve my future fertility and avoid potentially life-threatening infections or complications. There were no protesters, arbitrary delays or out-of-pocket costs; I simply received competent medical care as well as the love and support of my partner and family while I healed. Exactly as it should be.

Months later, I was thrilled to learn that I was pregnant again. Giving birth to my now four-year-old son was the most powerful and joyful experience of my life, and it almost certainly wouldn’t have been possible without the abortion I had in my first pregnancy. My experiences as a mother have only strengthened my belief that everyone, regardless of income or circumstance, should exercise their basic human right to decide if, when and how to welcome children into their families. Everyone deserves access to competent, compassionate health care for their whole bodies, which includes the parts of our bodies involved in reproduction. That means everyone must have access to birth control and abortion, on demand, without interference or out-of-pocket costs.

This really shouldn’t be a debate. For starters, we don’t have to agree about when life begins in order to understand that no person should be forced to have anything in their bodies that they don’t want there, much less at the risk of their health or their lives. In a country with rising maternal mortality rates (particularly for Black mothers like me) and an overall health care system that doesn’t meet all or even most people’s needs, it’s especially unconscionable to force people to bear and birth children under these circumstances.

Moreover, seven in 10 people in the U.S. agree that abortion should be safe and legal. Yet here we are, living under the tyranny of the 30 percent who don’t. Anti-choice activists and politicians have been working for decades to chip away at Roe v. Wade and now, assisted by Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell’s outright theft of a Supreme Court seat, and emboldened by Donald Trump’s subsequent appointments to that court, extremist politicians in states including Alabama, Georgia and Ohio are racing to pass laws that could be the springboard to gut or overturn Roe outright.

Few issues so starkly illustrate the dire consequences of minority rule like these extreme abortion bans.

Few issues so starkly illustrate the dire consequences of minority rule like these extreme abortion bans and the maze of devastating restrictions that preceded them. They are a product of racist voter suppression and partisan gerrymandering; naturally, the people who will be most hurt by these bans are young, low-income people of color whom these same lawmakers work so hard to prevent from voting. This is what happens in a system where a person who loses an election by more than 3 million votes can still occupy the White House, where Republican senators who received 12 million fewer votes than their Democratic counterparts can still control that chamber and confirm unqualified and dangerous people to lifetime positions on our federal courts.

This is also what happens in a political culture where many eligible voters frequently ignore local and state elections, and where too many so-called progressives write off entire states and regions of the country as “backward” and undeserving, simultaneously abandoning our stated values and our people. Every time people argue that we should just “let the South secede again” when laws like Alabama’s abortion ban are passed, they reveal not only their horrifying insensitivity — no one deserves to be forced into pregnancy or die in childbirth because of who their neighbors voted for — but the idea of Southern secession is also politically untenable. For example, the majority of Black Americans — a core constituency of the Democratic Party — live in the South, as do growing numbers of many other people of color. If we are going to successfully beat back these harrowing assaults on our bodies and our lives, we have to stop making the same mistakes that got us here.

As Steve Phillips reminds us in Brown is the New White, people of color plus progressive white folks are the majority of the American electorate. There are enough people of color and progressive white people in many swing districts and states to change state and federal election outcomes, but only if campaigns successfully find, appeal to and mobilize them. Instead, too many Democratic strategists continue to ignore the new U.S. majority in order to appeal to a shrinking number of fickle white swing voters, forfeiting millions of votes and wasting billions in campaign contributions.

Unless we change course immediately, we are going to repeat the same pattern that created the dystopian nightmare we’re living through right now. Now is the time for us to listen to leaders like Stacey Abrams, who are urging us to get serious about ensuring everyone can vote, no matter where they live or what circumstances they face. Instead of writing off voting as meaningless or obsessively tracking early primary polls that tell us nothing except how many survey respondents recognize a given presidential candidate’s name, we need to prevent the ascension of extremists in these local and state legislatures.

The people most hurt by these bans are young, low-income people of color whom these same lawmakers work so hard to prevent from voting.

At the same time, we have to strategize about ways to outmaneuver and eventually eliminate the voting restrictions and political structures that have given racist, sexist zealots outsized power over our local, state and federal governments – and in turn, our bodies. It doesn’t matter if we are the majority if the majority of us don’t exercise our full political power.

To make our majority matter, we have to stop idly complaining and feeling helpless on the sidelines, and start organizing and mobilizing in deep solidarity with each other, within and across communities, states and regions. We have to think beyond our traditional late election-year get-out-the-vote efforts. Yes, we’ll need to register as many unregistered voters as we can, starting yesterday. We’ll also need to fight new attempts to limit voting access tooth and nail. But most importantly, we need to really look at the landscape of existing voting restrictions and start dreaming up creative solutions to overcome them so we can finally get the political representation we need and deserve.

Luckily, abortion funds — donor-funded organizations that help people overcome the financial and logistical hurdles anti-choice politicians impose to block abortion access — offer a useful model for some of the creative solutions we need to employ to connect with and empower people who are typically left behind in our politics. If voter ID restrictions or court fees are functioning as modern-day poll taxes, let’s raise money to pay determined voters’ fees. If long lines at under-resourced polling sites keep underpaid hourly workers from voting, let’s organize solidarity funds to help voters who lose wages and jobs pay their bills.

Further, those of us who have the privilege of paid time off or otherwise have flexibility with our time and resources should come forward to support these efforts, doing everything from following the lead of local organizers to build the infrastructure to support this work, to helping monitor voter intimidation, to ensuring that people waiting in hours-long poll lines are hydrated, fed and entertained until they cast their ballots. If some of us aren’t into direct political activism, we can cook meals and provide child care for organizers who are. It’s all valuable and necessary work.

There is still time for us to turn things around, in Alabama and across our deeply troubled United States. But that means we’ve got to shed not only the shame and stigma that has stymied so much of the political conversation around abortion, but also the outdated political assumptions and apathy that have allowed a cruel, callous minority of voters and politicians control our bodies and our futures writ large. If we want a choice over any other aspect of our lives, we have no choice but to be as brave and bold in our organizing as we are becoming in sharing the stories that have shaped our lives.

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