I am a Mississippian. My parents are both from the Delta. My Dad was Archie Manning’s offensive guard at Ole Miss (this means something in Mississippi). I grew up going to public schools in Jackson, Mississippi. I have three kids under the age of 11, and I assume I will raise them here in Mississippi. And last year, Mississippi forced me to become a political activist.
I was a plaintiff in a lawsuit to keep Initiative 26 off of the ballot. Initiative 26, otherwise known as the Personhood Initiative, would have defined a person as beginning at conception. When the lawsuit was unsuccessful, I became an unofficial spokesperson against Initiative 26. I became obsessed with making sure that Mississippians understood the implications. The only way I could see to do this was to use the media.
Because I had a compelling story, I knew I could get people’s attention. When I was 20, exactly 20 years ago this past October 25th, I was abducted, raped, and shot twice by two teenagers on a car-jacking spree. I did not get pregnant, thank goodness. But if I had, and something like Initiative 26 had been in place, I would have been forced, by the state of Mississippi, to bear that child. Giving birth might have killed me physically (the gunshot wound to my lower back was life-threatening), if not emotionally.
I was not afraid to tell this story over and over. Voters needed to know the stories of real people, like me, who would have been affected by the passage of Initiative 26. Because of my story and the stories of many others like me, we defeated Initiative 26 last November.
Now we are fighting to keep the one abortion clinic in the state open. Under the guise of protecting women’s health, a new law creates a standard that no abortion clinic in Mississippi can meet: every abortion provider must have admitting privileges to the local hospital. Not only is this standard unreachable, it is medically unnecessary.
Jackson Women’s Health Clinic is just a few miles from the house I grew up in. I count the woman who owns it as a great Mississippi hero. She is one brave woman. I am thankful for her, and her will to fight the battle she is fighting to keep that place open, because there will always be Mississippi women, who for one reason or another, need abortions. And if Jackson Women’s Clinic shuts down, many of those women will not be able to afford to go to the next state, and pay to stay in a hotel (our neighboring states have waiting periods), to get an abortion. Sure, if you’re wealthy enough to have access to a private doctor who’s a friend, maybe they will help you out…but not the poor women of Mississippi. And we sadly have no shortage of those.
Along with being one of the poorest, sickest and least-educated states in the nation, Mississippi has the highest infant mortality rate, the highest teen pregnancy rate and the highest poverty rate in the country. Most public schools continue to offer abstinence only sex education, despite the fact that Mississippi also has some of the highest rates of STDs and HIV/AIDS in the country.
I don’t want Mississippi to be the state to bring back the horrors of back alley abortions. In describing the position of women’s health advocates who oppose this law, Mississippi State Representative Bubba Carpenter said, “They’re like, ‘Well, the poor pitiful women that can’t afford to go out of state are just going to start doing them at home with a coat hanger.’ That’s what we’ve heard over and over and over.But hey–you have to have moral values.” When the people who are supposed to be representing us are speaking like this, we know we cannot be silent. Representative Carpenter should know — there is nothing moral about letting women die, or denying them the right to control their own bodies and health.
So here we are. Initiative 26 galvanized thousands of us into action-and if the legal battle to keep our one clinic open fails we will continue to fight this new law. Legislators seek to deny Mississippi women the same medical options other American women have (and deserve!), but my friends and I will do everything we can to make sure we keep our rights, our bodies, and our choice.
Cristen Hemmins has emerged as a leading advocate for reproductive justice in her home state of Mississippi. Hemmins was a plaintiff in the lawsuit that tried to keep Proposition 26, better known as the “personhood amendment,” off the ballot in Mississippi. Although the lawsuit was not successful, Mississippians ultimately rejected Proposition 26, voting “no” on personhood. She currently resides in Oxford, MS with her husband and their three children.