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Mississippi’s Red Herring

IN the first half of 2011 alone, nineteen states implemented over 160 pieces of policy and legislation related to reproductive health. Almost half of these provisions sought to curtail access to abortion in some way. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a research-driven reproductive policy non-profit, these new provisions—many of which involve restrictions on late-term abortion or mandatory pre-abortion waiting periods and counseling—signify a sharp increase from trends seen in previous years.

This momentum pushes the pro-life movement forward from multiple angles. While conservative lawmakers from South Dakota to Ohio push for anti-abortion policies in their respective states, Republican presidential candidates like Mitt Romney and Michelle Bachmann flaunt their anti-abortion credentials on the national stage, lambasting their opponents for failing to consistently uphold the sanctity of life.

And though recent polls by Gallup and Rasmussen indicate that a slight majority of Americans still identify themselves as pro-choice, their preferences suggest otherwise. Most Americans support mandatory waiting periods, bans on so-called “partial birth” abortion, and parental notification laws for minors—all policies designed to, at least to some extent, restrict access to abortion.

Yet while anti-abortion sentiment carried pre-abortion counseling to Kansas, brought fraudulent crisis pregnancy centers to South Dakota, and restricted insurance coverage in Nebraska, pro-life momentum has found itself facing an unlikely roadblock in an even more unlikely place: Mississippi. In November, Mississippians voted on Initiative 26, a measure that, if passed, would amend the state’s constitution to define “person” as any human being from the moment of fertilization. In the conservative bastion of Mississippi, a personhood amendment seemed like a natural extension of the pro-life beliefs already engrained in the state’s political and social culture.

From the start, pundits and politicians alike speculated whether Initiative 26 would pass. The pro-life camp found a cast of big-name supporters in Jackson. Lt. Governor Phil Bryant—now Mississippi’s incumbent governor—backed the bill, as Haley Barbour, the state’s current governor, and Johnny Dupree, a Democrat and Bryant’s gubernatorial opponent. Opponents of the amendment found their support in both newly formed coalitions and familiar acronyms: the NAACP, the ACLU, and Planned Parenthood among them. Strong grassroots movements emerged on both sides of the debate. Yet despite a hard-fought campaign—and, perhaps more curiously, despite Mississippi’s conservative leanings— Initiative 26 fell, claiming only 42% of the vote.

So what went wrong—or right—in Mississippi? Why did the pro-life movement face one of its biggest challenges of the year in one of the most conservative states in the nation, and what does this suggest about the future of pro-life politics today?

First, Mississippi voters turned a skeptical eye to extremism—at the very least, they found little solace in the muddled dialogue leading up to the vote, which pitted two conflicting sets of alarmist facts against each other. Critics of the debate, including organizations like Mississippians for Healthy Families, claimed that the language of the Initiative 26 would extend far beyond the abortion clinic, effectively banning basic reproductive health services like in vitro fertilization and “common forms of birth control like the pill.” Even Haley Barbour, though he ultimately voted for the measure, called the amendment “ambiguous.”

Supporters of the amendment, however, asserted that their bottom line was curbing access to abortion, and abortion alone they discussed. In a pre-election message, Bryant, who compared his anti-26 opponents to both Satan and the Third Reich, maintained that the measure was “only about one thing”: abortion.

Yet confronted with the possibility of inadvertently restricting access to other medical procedures, Mississippi voters preferred continued access to reproductive rights over an unintentional restriction banning their most basic reproductive freedoms. The results seen in Mississippi reflect the slidingscale framework with which most Americans conceptualize reproductive rights; while most Americans do not support late-term abortions, a slight majority supports abortion in the first term, while a significant majority supports the use of contraceptives and other forms of birth control.

Although the failure of Initiative 26 signifies a major victory for the pro-choice camp, the battle over reproductive rights still rages, its effects manifested in two separate battlefields. Consider that most pro-life voters in Mississippi can still rest easy: the state plays host to only one single abortion clinic.

And Mississippi isn’t the exception to the rule, either. Over 80% of American women live in counties without ready access to an abortion, compounding the impact of recent legislation and forcing women to endure escalating burdens to simply procure the procedure. When actually obtaining an abortion comes with such heavy disincentives, the legality of the procedure itself proves somewhat of a red herring.

Meanwhile, access to abortion in America will only decrease in the near future, as over half of American abortion providers fall in the 50-and-over demographic, and few medical students seek the kind of proactive training that would equip them to provide these procedures in the future. Organizations like Medical Students for Choice cite the threat of violence as one of most significant reasons medical students choose not to become abortion providers, even if they consider themselves pro-choice and express an interest in reproductive health.

The threat of violence and harassment is a harsh reality. Almost 90% of abortion providers report some sort of pro-life picketing at the site of their clinic; nearly a fifth see instances of vandalism. For the extremist side of the antiabortion movement, where emphasis points toward grassroots activism and away from judicial or political methods, pickets and vandalism form just the tip of the iceberg. Whereas mainstream pro-life movements favor gradual change with the goal of assimilating anti-abortion policy into a secular society, anti-abortion extremists tend to take matters into their own hands.

Whereas mainstream pro-life movements concern themselves with ultimately overturning Roe v. Wade, anti-abortion extremists adopt a terroristic approach: as long as women are too scared to get abortions, and doctors are too scared to provide them, why should legality matter?

Anti-abortion extremism emerged in the 1980s, when a group of men calling themselves the Army of God kidnapped an abortion provider and his wife. Today, the Army of God functions as an umbrella organization that influences, motivates, and supports anti-abortion terrorism throughout the United States, using models of leaderless resistance. For many anti-abortion extremists, clinic violence proves a popular approach; extremists claim responsibility for no less than 200 instances of clinic bombings or arsons.

In 1993, the first known murder of an abortion provider by an anti-abortion extremist occurred, when Michael Griffin murdered Dr. David Gunn, a Pensacola OB-GYN. The most recent murder, in which Dr. George Tiller was shot and killed while working at his church in Wichita, serves as classic case study for the effectiveness of anti-abortion terrorism. While pro-choice activists hoped the murder of a highly respected medical professional would galvanize doctors and medical students to pick up where Tiller left off, the murder had the opposite effect, driving doctors away from their existing practices, and discouraging medical students from pursuing them.

The mainstream pro-life approach exemplified by the rise in anti-abortion legislation and the extremist approach exemplified by the rise in anti-abortion terrorism have very different goals, and, aside from some similar rhetorical flourishes, very different methodologies. But for pro-choice Americans and women across the country, they have equivalent consequences: restricting, and in many cases removing, their access to abortion. The pro-life momentum that took a hit in Mississippi will continue on two separate battlefields, legal and extralegal; to counter it, the pro-choice movement must fight back on both fronts.

Marissa Medansky is a freshman in Morse College.