Ever since getting involved in the pro-choice movement, I have wondered how the abortion debate plays out in the places I grew up. As I visited one of those places this past Memorial Day weekend, I decided to do a little investigating. Basically, I wanted to know how a woman in Fernandina Beach, Florida would go about obtaining an abortion. Fernandina Beach, the county seat of Nassau County, is the northern most point of Florida. It is located mostly on Amelia Island and sits just south of the Georgia/Florida border about 30 minutes north of Jacksonville. It is home to about 66,000 people, about half of which are female.
My investigation began by doing internet searches. When I found nothing, I began asking around. What I soon found out is that Fernandina Beach has no abortion provider. In fact, Nassau County is among the 70% of Florida counties with no abortion provider. To be sure, I called the Nassau County Health Department. After being transferred a few times, I was finally told the closest abortion provider was about 45 minutes away in Jacksonville.
Instead, what I did find in Fernandina Beach was a crisis pregnancy center. A Care Net Pregnancy Center, called Greater Nassau Women's Services, is located on a main stretch that leads directly to the beach. This particular agency proudly proclaimed "Free Pregnancy Tests" on its roadside sign, so I went there with a friend who actually needed the free pregnancy test. While there, she had to fill out a form which asked questions like, "How would you describe your relationship with God?" She was then taken upstairs while I was asked to wait in the waiting room where I collected brochures and read Focus on the Family's monthly magazine.
When my friend was finished, we left and I asked her to tell me what happened. She said it began with a counseling session about premarital sex, abortion, and contraception. My friend then took the test, which came back negative, and the appointment ended with a post-counseling session. My friend's overall reaction was that the messaging was very religious and anti-abortion. While she was not given any misinformation about abortion, she did say that the woman looked shocked when my friend said she would consider abortion as an option.
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I find it interesting that an agency like this exists in such a small community that doesn't even have an abortion provider. Although it is a very conservative and religious area, I expected more from the town where I graduated high school. After all, Fernandina Beach was the home to Dr. John Britton, the abortion provider murdered outside a Pensacola women's clinic in 1994. It has been almost 13 years since anti-abortion extremist Paul Hill shot Dr. Britton; during that time "Doc's" legacy seems to have all but faded away.
After a brief interview with Planned Parenthood of Northeast Florida's (PPNF) CEO, Carol Anne Steiger, I learned even more about the strength of the anti-abortion movement in the area. She noted that although there are more registered Democrats than Republicans in the Jacksonville metropolitan area, there is a strong anti-abortion religious base coming from a combination of the Catholic Diocese in St. Augustine and the mega churches of Jacksonville. But, Ms. Steiger also explained, PPNF is growing by working with area organizations like the Jacksonville Area National Organization for Women and the Women's Center of Jacksonville. Furthermore, Ms. Steiger believes, and I agree, that the answer is in the young, single women's vote because single women still vote less than married women.
I will leave you with this statement from Women's Voices. Women Vote: "Forty-eight million unmarried women live in this country. If they all voted and elected officials who supported the policies that addressed their needs, real social change could occur."
Under the watchful eye of Chief Justice John Roberts, the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court has used the First Amendment to radically shift our political landscape.
It did so first in 2010, with the declaration under Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC) that corporations have First Amendment freedom of speech rights and by striking limitations on direct corporate political spending. It followed that decision with last term’s McCutcheon v. FEC, which struck similar limitations on individual spending limits, and to a lesser degree inSBA List v. Driehaus, by seriously undermining state efforts to regulate truth in political advertising.
Now the Court is considering the role money plays in judicial elections.
Unlike federal judges, who are appointed and approved to their posts, 39 states elect their judges in some way. Some judges are first appointed and then face “retention” elections, while others run for a spot on the bench the way other candidates run for a spot in their state assembly. But unlike legislators, who as politicians are by definition supposed to be ideologues, judges are supposed to be impartial advocates. And that presents its own set of challenges when regulating judicial elections, especially when the issue of campaign contributions, donations, and endorsements come in.
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That’s why, even in states that provide for partisan judicial elections, nearly every state that elects its judges has adopted some form of the prohibition on judicial candidates personally soliciting campaign contributions under the American Bar Association’s Model Code of Judicial Conduct. Florida is one such state. Canon 7C(1) of the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct states, in part:
A candidate, including an incumbent judge, for a judicial office that is filled by public election between competing candidates shall not personally solicit campaign funds, or solicit attorneys for publicly stated support, but may establish committees of responsible persons to secure and manage the expenditure of funds for the candidate’s campaign and to obtain public statements of support for his or her candidacy.
In 2009, Lanell Williams-Yulee decided to run for county court judge in Hillsborough County, Florida. Shortly after she registered as a judicial candidate, she drafted and signed a mass-mail letter announcing her candidacy and seeking campaign contributions. According to Williams-Yulee, the solicitation was an oversight and the result of her not proofreading her campaign literature closely enough. The Florida Supreme Court publicly sanctioned and fined Williams-Yulee for violating Canon 7C(1), rejecting her claim that the rule violates the First Amendment; now she no doubt hopes the Roberts Court agrees with her that it does.
By objective standards, this is a case the Supreme Court should hear. There’s deep division in the federal courts as to whether these kinds of prohibitions violate the First Amendment. Here, the Florida Supreme Court held that Canon 7C(1) is narrowly tailored to achieve the compelling state interest of ensuring an impartial judiciary. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reached similar conclusions in cases challenging personal solicitation bans on judicial candidates in Indiana and Wisconsin. The Third Circuit upheld Pennsylvania’s ban while state supreme courts in Arkansas and Oregon upheld those state’s bans. Meanwhile, four other federal courts of appeals have held that personal solicitation bans fail strict scrutiny and, therefore, violate the First Amendment. That’s precisely the kind of confusion the Supreme Court was designed to resolve.
But as is always the fear with the Roberts Court, an invitation to settle a dispute among the federal courts is usually seen by the conservative majority as an opportunity to advance its anti-regulatory agenda, and all the better if it can do so via the Constitution. But this case is the perfect candidate (pardon the pun) for the Roberts Court to do for judicial elections what it did for elections generally: further open the pipeline of money.
The gist of Williams-Yulee’s argument is that these kinds of regulations are ineffective because they both regulate too much and too little speech at the same time. Williams-Yulee argues that they do too little in that a candidate herself can’t solicit, but her election committee can on her behalf. On the other hand, such regulations do too much because they prevent judicial candidates from even sending mass mailings with their name on them under a stated concern that the recipients will feel compelled to either contribute to the campaign or face possible mistreatment should they appear before the judge in the future. Furthermore, Williams-Yulee argues, these kinds of regulations often benefit incumbent judges and thus put otherwise good challengers at a disadvantage. Framed this way, Cannon 7C(1) is precisely the kind of government overreach and feigned disrespect for voters that the conservative justices on the Roberts Court sneered at in both Citizens United and McCutcheon.
While not perfect by a long shot, judicial cannons like Florida’s have at least erected more barriers to flatly politicizing the judicial electoral process than exist generally for candidates. Given the increasingly negative role political spending plays in judicial elections and the reality that conservatives are spending more and more money in judicial elections every cycle, every bit that helps stem political spending from completely taking over judicial elections counts. And while I usually dislike a “slippery slope” argument, it’s not a reach to say that this could go from personally soliciting donations to personally soliciting endorsements. That’s what Peggy Rowe-Linn of West Palm Beach, Florida, did. Rowe-Linn is one of three candidates running to be a circuit judge in Palm Beach County, but she was the only candidate to have the endorsement of Personhood Florida ProLife PAC after she signed a pledge to support the political action committee’s issues.
Since I’ve already made one slippery-slope argument, I’ll go ahead and make another: The Roberts Court has largely succeeded in helping deliver some of the most devastating blows to civil rights and the integrity of the democratic process—not in grand, sweeping decisions, but incrementally. If one campaign restriction on judicial candidates falls under the Roberts Court because it violates the First Amendment, there’s a pretty good chance most will. And where would that leave us? Public confidence in the integrity of the civil justice system is already plummeting, matching most Americans’ feelings about the failure of our criminal justice system.
There’s a real danger to buying into the simplicity of the “they’re just a formality, they don’t really work” argument that the people attacking personal solicitations bans make. First of all, the regulations obviously work because Williams-Yulee was reprimanded for violating Florida’s personal solicitation ban. But more importantly, as the Peggy Rowe-Linn candidacy demonstrates, the problem isn’t finding the perfect balance for regulating judicial elections; it’s having them at all. There is no perfect way to staff our judiciary, but the evidence is inescapable that the more money that goes into electing judges, the worse our state courts perform.
The Roberts Court has not yet decided if it will hear Williams-Yulee’s case.
The events that have unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri, in recent weeks have revealed many tragedies, among them the fact that the death of so many youth of color in this country is still debatable in its status as a vaunted “feminist issue.” But it is, and the expansive definition of reproductive justice, which reaches into the universe of conditions necessary to create and sustain life, shows us how.
As Rewire Senior Legal Analyst Imani Gandy put it so well in a recent tweet:
I saw so many people on Twitter saying "I don't want to have/raise black children in this country." That is a reproductive justice issue.
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The resonance of the phrase “my body, my choice” owes much to its essential simplicity. But that same simplicity leaves out a great deal. A number of writers, like Dani McClain, Hannah Giorgis, Tara Culp-Ressler, and Emma Akpan, have written about a much broader idea, whose standard has been borne mostly by women of color for the last 20 years: The death of Michael Brown, and the systematic terror it induces, is a reproductive justice issue.
Put another way, there can be no reproductive justice for all until the state-sanctioned murder of Black youth in this country is addressed.
Bodily control neither begins nor ends with reproductive health care—that was only ever one battleground, albeit an important one. When one’s choice of whether or not to have a child is coerced by a terror inflicted on you and others like you, one’s reproductive rights are also being trampled upon. The word “terror” is not hyperbole as Hannah Giorgis revealed when she wrote of her reaction to Brown’s murder:
When I heard Sunday night that 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot dead by police in Ferguson, Missouri, my heart sank. My skin pulled tight around my hands, my stomach churned itself into knots. My mind raced, visions of my brothers’ faces collaged into the painfully familiar sight of yet another innocent Black boy breathing — and bleeding — for the last time.
She shares this waking nightmare with countless other Black mothers who live in fear of their children falling to the vengeful divinity of the state. “Any force that systematically and unapologetically turns unconsenting Black wombs into graveyards,” she says, “is a reproductive justice issue.”
For one’s children to be random, unwitting blood sacrifices to the prejudice of faceless others is not freedom. To have reproductive freedom means, among many other things, that your choice to raise a family will not be revenged upon by collectivized prejudice wielding batons and handguns.
Children of Color as Crisis
A theme of the protests in Ferguson has been the fact that our much-cherished rights evaporated at just the moment when they were most needed.
Michael Brown’s right to due process was hardly in evidence. And for the protesters, much the same was true: Their First Amendment rights were stripped, as were those of many of the journalists trying to cover the historic events as they unfolded. The Fourth and Fifth Amendments fluttered away. Suddenly, even police regulations about providing names and badge numbers no longer applied. On and on, rights were butchered in the charnel house of Ferguson’s streets.
But equally glaring and shocking was the fact that Michael Brown’s mother was denied her right to a family she could raise in safety.
Far from being a “separate issue,” as some would like to imagine, what happened to Michael Brown is as much a profound indictment of our lack of reproductive justice as it is our lack of racial and economic justice.
If reproductive choice is about deciding whether or not one can have a family, or how large one wants her family to be, then structural violence imposed on a community is a constraint upon that freedom. If a woman like Marissa Alexander, for instance, cannot defend her own life and her children from an abusive parent, that too is a violation of reproductive freedom.
The issue is not only the tragic loss of a child, or an unjustly incarcerated mother. It’s the fact that for the entire Black community in our society, there is a calculus to be made about one’s children that’s not prevalent among whites. It’s the knowledge that your child might be stolen away by the very people who should be protecting him or her, and the knowledge that they will die a second death as a bloodthirsty press seeks to retroactively justify the atrocity by holding up their whole life for scrutiny and debate, as if anything revealed by such remorseless vulture-picking could ever excuse such a killing.
It is here where the question of “Whose lives are valued?” enters into the picture, for how cheap must a life be if millions of onlookers can think that stolen cigars justify a murder? Can we have reproductive justice if the children of some are considered inherently less valuable by several orders of magnitude? If the life of a child or a young man or woman is so cheap that misunderstandings, small mistakes, or false accusations justify their deaths, what can then be said about the rights they enjoyed in life and how valuable they turned out to be?
For First Nations and Native American peoples this, too, is a pressing question. The disproportionate murders of their children, particularly young women, is an appalling atrocity that has only unfolded quietly because such lives are undervalued. Writing about the death of Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old girl whose body was found in a river, Dr. Sarah Hunt, a researcher on violence against Indigenous people, concluded her piece by saying, “Treating our deaths as unremarkable is a form of violence that needs to stop along with the murders themselves. Taking steps to end the violence now is the only route to justice.”
A similar debauching occurs with the lives of Latino/a children in this country, especially immigrants. They are treated by the rest of society as a virus infecting the state, and their deaths—whether in the United States or in the countries to which they may be deported—are treated as both seemly and unremarkable. Amid all this violence and chaos, Latina mothers are condemned as being threats themselves for bearing these children—their decision to have a family, and any decision they make about saving that family (such as making the unarguably difficult choice to send your child over the border alone), are subject to a dehumanizing scorn in the press.
The great moral crime is that the deaths of all these people are treated as the seemly garnish to an otherwise just and progressive world.
It’s why Renisha McBride was killed—her part in the white suburban slasher drama that depicts all Black people as inherently dangerous was decided for her long before she staggered up to Theodore Wafer’s front door. It’s why Islan Nettles’ murder has not been properly investigated, despite the fact that it occurred next to a police station. It’s why Trayvon Martin’s death ignited controversy rather than universal condemnation. It’s why CeCe MacDonald went to prison for defending herself against a man who wanted her to pay with her life for the crime of her very existence. It’s why far too many other men and women have been slain.
The reproductive justice perspective is a simple one: All lives must be valued as equal. There can be no reproductive justice without racial justice. This means that the families of people of color must be seen as having equal value. It means that a child’s real or perceived imperfections should never be seen as an excuse for murder. And it means that the decisions of Black, Latino/a, or Native people to have children should not be constructed as a crisis. Rather, we should see the equal and just care of these children as a shared responsibility—a challenge, yes, but no more a challenge than raising one’s own family should be.
Children of color are not a crisis.
A Militarized Public
Much has been made of the militarization of the police in this country, and that must be addressed without delay. But we are making a tremendous mistake if we believe that taking the police’s tanks and assault rifles away will make things better.
The militarization of the mind is what we must fight with vigor. Police have merely clad themselves in the armor that fits their timeless pretensions. They were always a paramilitary force in word and deed—now they simply have the means to clothe themselves like it.
But this militant mind was never limited to the police. It leads to the terrifying fantasies that George Zimmerman and Theodore Wafer acted out when they committed their murders. It has made monsters of people’s children; it has cut a swathe through people’s families. It’s the same violent reflex that has taken the livesof countless transgender women of color, people whose very right to exist is being fought for on the furthest frontier of reproductive justice politics.
The militarized mind dehumanizes, and then justifies the treatment that accrues to the inhuman.
It is easy to see a logical extension between angry Facebook users posting memes about “welfare cheats” and “anchor babies” and those who try to justify the slaughter of a young person of color. You see the broad arc here: Dehumanize, then kill, then slay their memory. The kids are cast as spongers, or invading immigrants who will rape and kill, or talentless gang-bangers—all of whom are “stealing” hardworking (white) Americans’ money while constituting an existential threat to the nation as a whole. Inevitably, someone is killed, and just as inevitably people try to justify the death.
Armies of children are reduced to caricatures.
The real question is, how is this not about reproductive justice? How could anyone think otherwise?
The answer lies in the same dehumanization that leads to this weeping list of crimes, and it infects feminism as well. Ferguson is a moment for all of us who call ourselves feminists to refuse the seductions of racism; we must refuse to fail. It’s also a moment for all of us non-Black people of color to recognize that although we cannot lay total claim to the issue of police violence visited on Black children and Black parents, we are inextricably bound up in all of this and cannot afford to be silent.
There’s a movement in there somewhere. And we would all do well to answer its call at last.