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How Abortion-Rights Advocates Won in Mississippi

Almost a decade before Mississippi passed the law that would result in the pro-life movement’s greatest victory — overturning Roe v. Wade — anti-abortion advocates suffered a major loss there.

In 2011, they attempted to ban abortions through a ballot measure, Initiative 26, that legally defined life as beginning at the moment of fertilization. No exception. Voters overwhelmingly rejected it, 58% to 42%.

Such a “personhood” initiative may have seemed like a fringe idea for Mississippians and others back then, but it is now very much a reality in a  post-Roe world. In fact, these and other restrictive measures at the state level could be the next battleground — in which case, the fight over Initiative 26 offers some valuable lessons.

“I was just a normal Mississippi girl, going to college. And then I was abducted and raped,” says a White woman named Cristen Hemmins in a TV ad against the measure. “Initiative 26 doesn’t make any exceptions for rape or incest,” she says. “I don’t trust the government. I trust Mississippi families and women to make these important decisions. It’s perfectly acceptable to be pro-life and against Initiative 26.”

The message worked by embracing the complex and nuanced feelings around abortion. In another TV spot, Republican Governor Haley Barbour called the measure “concerning.” Another featured a woman who would have died had she not ended an ectopic pregnancy. There were almost a dozen ads that featured doctors, nurses, pastors and others. They touted conservative values while underscoring the real-life consequences, such as putting a mother’s life at risk, losing access to birth control and criminalizing women.

The successful campaign depended on a highly organized and broad coalition, including medical and religious groups that had never worked together and weren’t aligned on every issue, says Nsombi Lambright, who ran Mississippians for Healthy Families, one of the lead organizers. The video ads targeted White communities. In Black communities, she says, organizers went door to door and into churches to deliver the same messages in person.

In the end, voters rejected Initiative 26 even as they elected a Republican governor. And the coalition that helped defeat Initiative 26 disbanded and moved on.  “Unfortunately,” Lambright says, “that paved the way to where we are now.”

Even today, the nurses and doctors’ associations aren’t flexing their political muscle the way they did in 2011. “Those are the people who would have the weight with the governor and with the power structure in Mississippi,” she says.

Now that Roe has been struck down, they have less cover — in Mississippi and elsewhere. Going forward, says Lambright, the influence of the medical and religious communities will be crucial for delivering the kind of message about abortion that worked so well in one of the country’s most conservative states.

In red states, the debate will likely focus on exceptions to a ban on abortion, or whether it’s acceptable to allow abortions before six weeks. In blue states such as California, the debate will be over whether any limitations are put in place after 15, 18 or even 24 weeks. Purple states are the Wild West — the politics of abortion lends itself to extremes.

This November, at least five states will have ballot measures dealing with abortion rights — the most in a single year since 1986. Voters in Kansas and Kentucky will be asked to approve a constitutional amendment saying there is no state right to abortion; in Vermont and California, they will be asked to approve an amendment saying that there is. In Montana, voters will decide on a law that states “an infant born alive is a legal person” and that health-care providers must provide appropriate medical care or risk being charged with a felony.

Abortion-rights activists at the state level are staffing up and are more open to different approaches than they were a decade ago, says Jessie Hill, a law professor at Case Western University who has represented abortion-rights supporters. But she adds: “It’s starting way too late.”

While Democrats can and should try to organize voters around reproductive rights in advance of November’s elections, winning a 60-seat Senate majority to enshrine a constitutional right to abortion is unlikely. This is going to be a long and chaotic fight.

“The pro-choice side has been more focused on a national picture and a national strategy. The other side has been building infrastructure in the states and figuring out what works,” Hill says. “That’s what it’s going to look like if there’s going to be a successful pro-choice movement after Dobbs.”

Would voters in Mississippi defeat a personhood initiative by 16 percentage points in 2022 or 2024, as they did in 2011? Probably not. Nevertheless, expect to see the approach from that campaign replicated in other states as the abortion debate evolves in the years ahead.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• How Abortion Pills Changed the Political Debate in Ireland: Clara Ferreira Marques

• After the Supreme Court Breaks Roe, Who Picks Up the Pieces?: Therese Raphael

• Adoption Is Not a Substitute for Abortion: Kami Rieck

• What’s Not Going to Happen After Roe Falls: Ramesh Ponnuru

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Julianna Goldman is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist who was formerly a Washington-based correspondent for CBS News and White House correspondent for Bloomberg News and Bloomberg Television.

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