Alabama Feminists Fight Back
How an intergenerational, multiracial force is organizing for women’s reproductive rights
The first meme I saw when I logged on to social media on Wednesday, May 15, 2019 featured a picture of George Orwell, captioned with the words “Boy, did I call it or what?” Beneath it was a picture of Margaret Atwood retorting, “Hold my beer.”
I then saw feminist and progressive friends from around the country and the world discussing the fact that the Alabama Senate had just passed HB 314, the most regressive abortion law in the United States. This legislation, which the House passed in April, bans abortions at every stage of pregnancy. It also turns abortion providers into criminals who, if caught, could face felony charges and up to 99 years in prison. The legislation signals a new, and more aggressive, turn for the anti-abortion movement. Although there is an exception for the physical health of the mother, the bill does not make an exception for pregnancies that result from rape or incest.
Alabama Governor Kay Ivey (R) didn’t even take the night to sleep on it. Within hours of the bill passing she signed it, declaring “every life is a sacred gift from God.”
Well, not all lives, it turns out. The next day, May 16, 2019, the State of Alabama executed Michael Brandon Samra for a quadruple homicide committed in 1997, when he was 19. Ivey’s office couldn’t be bothered to even comment on questions from journalists, civil liberties organizations, and prison abolition advocates about her refusal to stay Samra’s execution, even though there was evidence of an unfair trial and unreliable conviction and sentence. Similarly, on the same day that Ivey signed anti-abortion legislation on the basis that “every life is a sacred gift from God,” a U.S. Justice Department investigation concluded that conditions in Alabama’s prisons violate the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, which protects against cruel punishment. According to the report, Alabama prisons have the highest suicide rate in the country, three times the national average, with mentally ill prisoners facing the greatest danger of suicide under the state’s watch.
Life is, in fact, not uniformly valued in Alabama outside the prison system either. The state ranks last in terms of quality and access to education in the United States and has one of the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the country. Every day, over 40,000 children go hungry there. A 2017 article in Newsweek cited Philip Alston, U.N. Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, as saying that Alabama has the “worst poverty in the developed world.” The state’s public health infrastructure is also abysmal. The Guardian has reported that in 2017 Alabama had an outbreak of hookworm, a disease typically associated with sub-standard sanitary conditions at the community level.
We could beg the question of which lives actually matter, but we already know Alabama’s new abortion law, which goes into effect in 6 months, is not about actual lives. It’s about controlling reproductive rights and the bodies of women and people with uteruses.
Targeting Roe v. Wade
Much ink has been spilled about the history of reproductive rights, both before and after the 1973 landmark decision Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in the United States and codified into law a medical trimester system to determine at which point abortion should be further regulated. Equally copious reporting has been devoted to restrictions on Roe v. Wade enacted since: bans on second- and third-trimester abortions have been an important focus for these efforts, even though according to the Centers for Disease Control, only 1.3% of procedures occur after 21 weeks, while over 90% occur within the gestation period established in Roe. Abortion has been restricted through parental notification laws, waiting periods and TRAP laws that require clinics that provide abortions to have the same medical facility design, down to hallway measurements, as a hospital. What is new — and the outcome remains to be seen — is recent laws that restrict abortion after a fetal heartbeat has been detected (Ohio, Missouri, and Georgia); and laws that ban abortion under any circumstance except to save the life of the mother (Alabama).
Simultaneously, the grounds on which such laws can be challenged are shifting. On May 13 the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to allow states to avoid lawsuits filed against them in other states’ courts. The case, Franchise Tax Board of California v. Hyatt, overturned a 40-year precedent based on Nevada v. Hall, which held in 1979 “that individuals in one state can sue a state in the courts of a different state.” Justice Stephen Breyer, in his dissent, recognized that overruling precedent demands a “special justification,” but “the majority does not find one.” He keenly noted that “the law has not changed significantly since this Court decided Hall…. All that has changed is the composition of the court” (emphasis added).
That is the linchpin here, and the aspect of the anti-abortion struggle that has accelerated under the Trump administration: the shift to a conservative judiciary. With the Hyatt decision, judicial precedent itself is on the chopping block. And potentially with it, the rights to reproductive freedom established in Roe v. Wade.
This has been the goal of the so-called right to life movement since its inception in 1973, and it isn’t just the federal courts who are more likely to enact its agenda. A conservative-dominated Supreme Court now stands ready to support a range of laws passed by deeply conservative Republican legislatures and governors such as Alabama’s. Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, stated, “Various state legislatures [are] rushing at this point to be the state that is the case that the Supreme Court finally takes up to reconsider their findings in the 1973 Roe and Doe decisions.” She recognized that “dismantling and reversing Roe may not be in one decision. And pro-lifers aren’t certain as to how it is going to happen […but] I’m watchful and I’m hopeful. I think Roe is destined to become a historical footnote.” If Hawkins and others who think like her get their way, women’s dignity, safety, citizenship, and lives also become a historical footnote.
Front-Porch Feminist Coalitions
Before Ivey had recapped the pen that she signed the bill with, feminists around the state started mobilizing and organizing. Over the weekend of May 18-19, thousands of people from all walks of life attended rallies, demonstrations, and marches in support of abortion rights and reproductive justice in Huntsville, Birmingham, Florence, and Montgomery — over 1,000 people showed up in Huntsville alone, while Birmingham reported over 2,000 at their march. These actions were organized by feminists across racial, class, gender, and socioeconomic lines in a state not historically known for feminist coalition building. But as I have written elsewhere, like other activists before them, they bring multiple consciousness to their coalition work and seek to incorporate many perspectives and experiences into their activism whether they identify as feminists or not.
In a similar way to how #MeToo gathered support from allies not typically associated with feminist activism, opposition to the bill is generating new activists in Alabama. Upon hearing that the abortion bill had been signed into law, Megan Eller, 29, and Kristine Mears, 30, immediately contacted each other. For the first time in their lives, they organized a demonstration. The Huntsville “MY BODY, MY CHOICE” rally took place on Sunday, May 19 at Butler Green, a public park that has been the site of, among other things, the city’s Pride March. A long-time community organizer in Huntsville myself, I spoke with these women a few days earlier by conference call.
“As a woman, I refuse to sit by and let things like this happen,” Eller told me. “It starts here.” Mears agreed, adding that “women need resources such as comprehensive sexual education, birth control, and access to affordable abortion. I was a victim of sexual assault and I did not get pregnant. I felt lucky, but I know women will have to face so many obstacles if they are sexually assaulted and get pregnant.” These obstacles include not only access to abortion, but also access to medical care and financial resources, often nearly insurmountable obstacles in Alabama.
But Eller and Mears needed allies to organize a rally. They had no idea how long it took to secure a permit or port-a-potties, but they created a Facebook event that quickly gathered momentum. They confirmed speakers from the state ACLU as well as trans, queer, feminist, and people of color activists, with a DJ to play music and pass the mic for chants and stories. Angry Aunties, a newly-formed group of middle-age Black, Asian, white, and biracial women in Huntsville offered sound equipment and shared vital information on how to get a “breaking news” permit that circumvents the usual 10-day process for holding a rally in the city. The Aunties accompanied Eller and Mears to the police department to present the permit.
From a public policy point of view, feminists know that the law will be a widespread disaster. Researchers at the University of California at San Francisco have shown that women who are denied abortions are more likely to become unemployed, be on public assistance programs, live below the poverty line, and become victims of domestic violence. They are also more likely to be poor in the first place.
What is happening in Alabama isn’t just statistical data gathering and analysis: it is the stuff of people’s lives, and will further marginalize already vulnerable women. Alex Mills, a 24-year-old white woman who works as a restaurant server, told me that growing up in a religious family in Alabama she had not believed in abortion when adoption was a viable option. However, when she was 18 and headed to college, she found herself pregnant because of failed birth control. She didn’t want to give up her dreams and didn’t want to have an abortion, but decided on the latter option. Finding a provider was difficult, and paying for it impossible. “I was so stressed about how I was going to take care of this child when I could barely take care of myself,” she recalled, “and was in an abusive relationship anyway. I ended up having a miscarriage that put me in the hospital.” As she observes, “I guarantee none of the people who have put this law into place have never had the fear of not knowing how you are going to pay for a child while you make $7.25 an hour. This is supposed to be a free country and there is nothing free about the government making choices for people in this situation.”
Yalitza LaFontaine, a Puerto Rican community organizer based in Huntsville who works with immigrant communities across the state of Alabama, concurs that poverty will still be a factor in who obtains abortion services. “If you have money, you can get an abortion anywhere,” she says. “You can go somewhere else.” The new bill is being passed against the backdrop of ongoing repression of the rights of immigrants and people of color in Alabama and across the country. “This is not a moral issue regarding abortion and fetuses as humans,” LaFontaine reminds us, “but one on how we perceive our rights in this country. This is part of the greater surge of repression of rights and pushes already marginalized people further into the margins.”
State Senator Linda Coleman-Madison, an African American Democrat representing an overwhelmingly Black part of Birmingham and one of only four female senators (of a total of 35) in the state, pointed out there are already 14 cases restricting abortion at various stages in state and federal courts; there is no need for another from Alabama. She questioned why money for Planned Parenthood was denied when it helps educate people about family planning. She stated, “People will have abortions; you are simply making it unsafe. This bill is about control, not life. Is it not a sin to bring a child into the world that will not be cared for? Will you house them in youth homes, foster homes, eventually prisons?” She and five other Black state senators underscored how anti-abortion laws in Alabama — or anywhere — only create heinous penalties for women exercising control over their bodies and their children’s lives.
Although Ivey had signed the bill with a statement that it represented the will of the people of Alabama, Mears disagrees. “We’re not all ignorant people with our heads in the sand,” she says. “Most of us want a better future for all women.” Eller sees elections as key to establishing that. “What’s happening right now is why voting is so important,” she says. “People fail to recognize that voting — or not voting — has consequences.”
But not if the women of Alabama have their way. Beyond weekend protests, activists are planning a number of events with support across the state and the country. Kimberly Inez Macguire of Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equality (URGE) is organizing a week of solidarity to defend abortion with the coalition work of URGE, Access Reproductive Care – Southeast, Feminist Women’s Health Center, Women Have Options – Ohio, and The Yellowhammer Fund of Alabama. Week-long social media events will be organized under the hashtag #abortionsolidarity. On Tuesday, May 21, the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, Women’s March, and other organizations sponsored events around the country, including a demonstration at the Supreme Court. The Southeast Immigrants’ Rights Network is hosting relevant community defense training in Waynesville, NC in June 2019. Musicians John Prine and Margo Price are donating sales from their forthcoming album “Unwed Fathers” to the Alabama ACLU to help with legal fees to fight this law in court. Angry Aunties will be launching a website for Alabama women, named or anonymous, to tell their abortion stories and to share struggles, obstacles, and freedoms.
Like too many others, I can’t believe we are fighting this battle again. But it is more than that — this time, women are fighting literally for our lives, our humanity. And beyond the hot sauce and honeysuckle that permeates the air in this quintessentially Southern state, a feminist revolt is underway. We are fighting with intentional attention to the diversity of people this law affects and the different ways in which it affects us. We won’t go back. We will #abortthebill and secure rights of safety, citizenship, and reproductive justice for all human beings in Alabama.
Stephanie Gilmore is a writer, antiracist feminist activist, and organizer who offers workshops and lectures on sexual violence on college campuses around the country as well as seminars on community and nonprofit organizing and what she calls “keeping the ‘just’ in justice.” She currently lives in Huntsville, Alabama with her partner, Bill, and her dog, Maybe, and cat, Moosey. She tweets at @pivotthecenter but doesn’t like the hate on twitter so feel free to email her at email@example.com