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The Forgotten Story of How Voting Rights Drive Abortion Access

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For more on the power grab for your rights, check out our special edition.

What if I told you that the current abortion rights fights in Texas and Mississippi could have been avoided? That this new age of abortion criminalization was not destined to come to pass?

Because what’s going on with abortion rights in the South may come as a surprise to some, particularly to those who spent the last decade insisting that Roe v. Wade was safe and there, there little lady, there’s nothing to worry your pretty little head about.

But to Black organizers in the South, this was expected—predicted, even.

In 2011 there was a fight for the soul of Mississippi, and abortion rights and voting rights were at the center of it. Both sets of rights are fundamental, yet neither is explicitly protected by the Constitution. And so both are up for grabs, to hear conservatives tell it. Both rights were under attack.

In preparation for the fight in Mississippi, advocates from mainstream reproductive rights organizations swooped down South and focused on what they knew best—abortion rights. They ignored requests from the grassroots organizers who were speaking out about the need to broaden the effort so as to capitalize on the resources being poured into the abortion rights fight. These grassroots organizers understood that voting rights are as integral to reproductive rights as abortion rights are—after all, if the people most affected by abortion rights being stripped away cannot vote for representatives who would protect those rights, then they’ll never enjoy reproductive freedom. It’s common sense.

Everyone can see it. But back then, the few that could were Black women.

Being a Black woman can be tough—trust me. We often feel as if we have the right answer but that no one will listen to us. Because we live at the intersection of race and gender—and many of us at the intersection of race, gender, and LGBTQ identity—we understand that discussions related to fundamental rights cannot be siloed. They are linked.

Black organizers understood that in 2011 in Mississippi. Unfortunately, they were ignored.

But what if they hadn’t been? Imagine if reproductive rights advocates had listened to what the reproductive justice advocates were telling them? Imagine if a blueprint for protecting against attacks on abortion and ballot access had been in place in 2013?

June 25, 2013, was a big day for abortion rights and voting rights. It was the day activists took to the Texas Capitol in Austin and literally shouted down an abortion bill while then-Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis famously stood on her feet and filibustered the bill for 13 hours. That very same day, the Supreme Court issued its embarrassing ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, gutting the Voting Rights Act and giving Republican-led states the green light to disenfranchise Black and brown voters.

What might have happened if the same energy and resources poured into the takeover of the Texas Capitol to protest the abortion bill had been poured into a widescale fight against voter suppression in Texas?

We may never know.

What do Mississippi, Texas, and Wendy Davis have to do with one another, you may be asking, and what does that have to do with the current fight for abortion rights?

To answer that question, I need to walk you through the 2011 ballot initiative fight in Mississippi, because, reader, when it comes to abortion rights, everything old is new again.

The lingering consequences of the 2011 ballot initiative fight in Mississippi

In the lead-up to the off-year election in 2011, organizers in Mississippi were fighting a two-front war: On one front they were battling Initiative 26, a ballot initiative that would have appended a “personhood” amendment to the Mississippi Constitution. The amendment would have effectively conferred the same rights that you and I have—as living breathing human beings—to eggs, embryos,........

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