In Jackson, Mississippi, Southern Hospitality and Food for Thought on Access to Abortion

On my first day in Mississippi, I was schooled in reproductive rights by an unlikely source.

State capitol in Jackson, MS. (Britannica Kids)

Robin Marty is reporting for Rewire from Jackson, Mississippi this week.

I expected my beliefs to be challenged in a number of ways when I came down to Jackson, Mississippi.

I didn’t expect it to come from an intern from England.

Southern charm and hospitality is a reality, and I experienced it firsthand from the moment I arrived. After calling to ask my host to remind me of her address, she picked me up from the airport instead, energetically sharing everything from the saga of filling her car up with gas (and believe me, it was a saga) to a full tour of the city, including a ride past Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the state capitol building, her home, and what she referred to as “The Help Tour” (the author of the book grew up in the neighborhood and the story took place there).

My host often opens her home to journalists, lawyers, anyone who needs a short-term place to stay. The definition of “short” varies—I will be here for just a few days, others live with her a few months at a time.

That’s how I met Elizabeth. Also boarding here, the young British lawyer is interning for Deathrow Legal Defense Fund. Out for a ride to pick up some of the most essential needs for our time in town (me, groceries; Elizabeth, a microphone headset to skype with her loved ones back home) the traditional getting-to-know-you line of work questions got more philosophical, as they always tend to when you write these sorts of topics.

“So for you, the right to an abortion is a bodily integrity issue?” she asked.

I told her about a conversation I had recently with someone who would be considered an anti-choice adversary, and how because of it, I thought very long and hard about the question “Is there any change that could ever make you ‘pro-life.'” Of course, she meant pro-life under her terms, where no one is allowed to have an abortion. I spent a full 24 hours mulling the question, trying to come up with an scenario where I might say that there could be no abortions, but I could only come up with one change that would allow me to accept that as a possibility.

“Only if there became a way to transfer a pregnancy from the moment the person carrying it no longer wanted to be pregnant, and instead give it to someone else, intact and alive,” I told her. “Abortion is about a person not wanting to be pregnant, not just not wanting to raise a child.”

At the time, I was convinced I was pretty definitive. Elizabeth made me realize I still hadn’t thought it all the way through. There will be a time not too far in the future when science will have artificial wombs, she pointed out. What then?

“How would they get the baby? Wouldn’t that be invasive?” she questioned.

“Well, yes, probably. But abortion is a process, too.”

“You can take a pill, and it all comes out,” she said. “That’s not invasive. Besides, this would be mentally invasive. Knowing that you have a child out there regardless of the fact that you didn’t want it to exist. That’s emotionally invasive.”

It didn’t take too long for me to realize that she was completely right. Even if we could magically and with no effort transfer an embryo or fetus somewhere else to complete its growth, there is much in the past to support the belief that a woman, if left with the choice to not be pregnant but know that a child with her genetic code is out in the world somewhere, or stay pregnant and keep and raise the child herself, she would be inclined to choose the latter. If abortion no longer existed and the “choice” was either embryo transfer or giving birth, there’s little reason to believe that women would choose transfer as a viable option over giving birth and keeping the resulting child.

We see the beginnings of that even now. Although anti-choice activists point often to the decline in available babies for adoption, citing abortion as the reason for the lack of supply, one adoption historian claims it isn’t the legalizing of abortion that has caused the change, but the acceptance and assistance of single parent families. “The number of births out of wedlock actually continued to rise sharply in the 1970s and 1980s, after the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. But now there was less stigma attached to the single-parent home,” said author Barbara Melosh in an interview for her book Strangers and Kin: The American Way of Adoption.

In fact, that explains the stances that often seem so contradictory in anti-choice policy: an opposition to both abortion and federal programs that often assist poor families, many of whom are being supported by single mothers. Opposition to abortion ensures pregnancies that must be carried to term. Opposition to assistance programs leave these mothers with no ability to raise those children on their own.

It took me all night to understand it, but when I woke up this morning something dawned on me that had not before. There already was a womb that could carry the child until it was born and then allow someone else to have the resulting child. According to the “pro-life” faction, that was exactly what the pregnant woman was.

No wonder they’ve fought Roe so hard for the last 40 years.