To Save the Right to Choose Nationwide, Reproductive Justice Advocates Need a Southern Strategy


(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Signs outside a polling place support different opinions on an amendment to the Tennessee Constitution on Tuesday, November 4, 2014, in Nashville, Tennessee. The amendment would expand the power of legislators to pass more abortion regulations. 

This past Election Day, the people of Tennessee awoke to a state in which the right to an abortion is no longer secure. Amendment 1 to the state constitution could mean that politicians soon vote to take away the right within the state. 

The passage of Amendment 1 gives politicians far-reaching power to restrict many forms of birth control and abortion. Most ominously, if Roe v. Wade were ever overturned, the passage of Amendment 1 lays the groundwork to eliminate all abortion access in Tennessee. In the run-up to the election, anti-choice politicians in the state masked their strategy to eliminate abortion access by framing their position as an issue of free speech, saying the voters had been silenced by a decision by state Supreme Court, which found in 2000 that the state Constitution’s protection from government interference in “inherently personal decisions” extended to the right to have an abortion. Amendment 1 gives anti-abortion lawmakers far more power than they had before to enact onerous abortion regulations and restrictions in Tennessee.

The passage of Amendment 1 was the result of 14 years of work by Tennessee’s anti-choice advocates. The results will be particularly devastating for poor families.  As it is, these families struggle to have their voices heard by state lawmakers, who stigmatize and shame them for facing very hard choices. However, as the founder of SisterReach, a grassroots organization that focuses on empowering, organizing, and mobilizing women and girls of color (especially poor women and rural women), I still see the cup as half full.

However ominous the passage of Amendment 1, this election we engaged more members of our community than ever before, and while we still have much work to do, the path forward is becoming increasingly clear.

It is a lesson that we have learned many times before: If we aim to win reproductive justice battles in Southern states like Tennessee, we must have a advocacy strategy that engages the black community, including clergy and laity—one that includes a strong anti-poverty message, and centers the voices of women of color, who are the strongest supporters of reproductive justice policies across the nation.

If we are going to ensure that the voices of the most vulnerable in our state are heard, we cannot ignore the dangers of voter suppression. Advocates for reproductive justice need a new kind of Southern strategy: one that engages the most vulnerable communities in the South and advocates for policies that meet their needs.

Our new Southern strategy must give attention to the policies that contribute to the need for abortion care, such as those that block access to comprehensive reproductive and sexual-health education, and to health care for every person in the state of Tennessee despite their ability to pay.

Now, more than ever, we must be intentional about fighting the policies that fail those women and girls who are victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, rape, incest, age-discordant relationships. It is at these intersections where those most affected have been silenced and their stories have gone unheard; we must not turn our attention away from these women and girls.

Through all this work, we must be diligent in building relationships with faith leaders. Alongside them, we can leverage momentum in support of reproductive justice issues. It is imperative that leaders in our churches, mosques, synagogues and temples be vocal and present in every debate, and serve as our partners in fighting policies that negatively impact the poor and voiceless, including their fundamental right to determine when and how they have children.

For us, a wide-reaching reproductive justice agenda is, in fact, the Southern strategy we need.

We knew just how high the stakes were in this election. As the only reproductive justice organization in our state, SisterReach staff and members spent day after day calling attention to the unique concerns of black and poor communities throughout Shelby County, and across the state of Tennessee. Though the outcome of the vote on Amendment 1 wasn’t what we worked for, I congratulate those voters and advocates in Tennessee who engaged with us and began to believe, for the first time, that their votes and voices are important. They’re not done fighting, and neither are we.

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