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The Politics of Reproductive Rights Legislation in the “Modern” South

On May 15, 2019 Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed legislation that will make the state’s abortion laws the most restrictive in the United States. Furthermore, it will establish extremely stringent penalties for violating these laws. The Human Life Protection Act, as it is formally named, would ban abortion in nearly every instance, including rape and incest, throughout the state. Only in instances of medical emergencies will abortions be allowed in the Heart of Dixie. As if that weren’t enough, it will criminalize the surgical procedure as a class-C felony with penalties for the performing physician ranging from 10 to 99 years in prison.

The act passed the Alabama House of Representatives on April 30 by a vote of 74–3 and, two weeks later, the Senate voted in favor of the bill by a vote of 25–6. Various news outlets reported that every single “yes” vote came from white males. The next afternoon, the governor signed the bill, which is set to become law in November of this year. Upon signing the billing, Governor Ivey proclaimed, “To the bill’s many supporters, this legislation stands as a powerful testament to Alabamians’ deeply held belief that every life is precious and that every life is a sacred gift from God.” Governor Kay signed this legislation during a shifting time in the region. Alabama, like other parts of the Deep South, is on the verge of a political shift, but at a time when the United States Supreme Court’s majority proves favorable to overturning Roe v. Wade, the current law of the land concerning abortion rights.

This commitment to life did not always exist in the South.

In the decades after World War II, southern state houses established eugenic committees and passed legislation littered with proto-Reagan-era language disparaging government-assistance recipients as unworthy of help and all but a plague on society. These efforts were last-ditch efforts to thwart the Civil Rights Movement and maintain white supremacy and political power. Yet, even before World War II, Alabama engaged in harsh reproductive legislation. For example, in 1919, it became the first state in the South to enact legislation to legalize the compulsory sterilization of any inmates in state institutions-hospitals, prisons, orphanages-and the “feebleminded.” The law stood from 1919 to 1935, during which time nearly 250 Alabamians were sterilized against their will. White women and African American men made up the majority of those sterilized under the law. Alabama was not alone in this trend in the region.

Drawing of a woman with mostly dark skin in profile, next to the words Genocide in Mississippi
SNCC’s Opposition to Mississippi House Bill No. 180. (The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Genocide in Mississippi, (Atlanta: No Publisher, 1964), 1. Print Culture of the Civil Rights Movement, 1950-1980 | Tulane University Digital Library / Howard-Tilton Memorial Library, Tulane University)

Following Alabama’s lead, Virginia, Mississippi, and North Carolina also passed compulsory sterilization laws in the 1920s. Georgia and South Carolina followed suit in the 1930s. While these new laws led to the compulsory sterilization of thousands of southerners, Nazi Germany’s use of sterilization in their extreme ethnic and racial cleansing program did influence southern states to eventually scale back their compulsory sterilizations and, in some cases, all but table the practice. Other states, such as North Carolina, continued to actively practice compulsory sterilization at a steady rate well into the 1970s, even though compulsory sterilization fell out of favor among average southerners, influenced at least in part by the legacy of the Third Reich. As one Alabamian said, “In my judgment, the rank and file of the country people of Alabama do not want this law; they do not want Alabama … Hitlerized.”1 In place of these prewar laws, a coded and racialized language centering on economic and societal factors developed within the discussions and endorsements of compulsory sterilization instead. This new rhetoric shifted the argument, previously rooted in scientific racism, to a political and thinly veiled racist one in reaction to the Civil Rights Movement.

This shift was most evident in Mississippi in the postwar decades. Between 1958 and 1964, the Mississippi State Legislature attempted to pass four separate pieces of legislation centered on the compulsory sterilization of black Mississippi women. The 1964 legislation passed after being amended in the State Senate due to national protest and opposition by members of the chamber.2 Much of the language used in the bills, and by those sponsoring them, ran the gamut from economic arguments to outright racist ones. In 1958, “An Act to Discourage Immortality of Unmarried Females by Providing for Sterilization of the Unwed Mother under Conditions of this Act” was proposed by Representative David H. Glass of Kosciusko.3 Representative Glass’s bill would have forced unmarried mothers who had more than two children out of marriage to either receive psychiatric therapy through the local welfare office or be sterilized by the state.6 Upon introducing the bill, Glass stated, “During the calendar year 1957, there were born out of wedlock in Mississippi, more than seven thousand Negro children…the Negro woman because of child welfare assistance [is] making it a business in some cases, of giving birth to illegitimate children.”4 He concluded his remarks by arguing that he was trying “to stop, slow down, such traffic at its source.”5 Four years later, Representative Richard Arrington of Copiah proposed a bill to sterilize “unwed mothers receiving public welfare benefits to prevent recurrence.”7 Three months later, State Senator Sonny Montgomery of Meridian introduced a bill to establish Planned Parenthood clinics at county health departments where “the mother of every baby delivered at state expense” would be sterilized.8

The 1964 Regular Session of the Mississippi Legislature presented one final sterilization law. This time, the legislation passed the House, 72–37, and made its way to the State Senate. Upon passage in the House, Representative Walter Meek of Eupora quipped, “I feel every person is entitled to one [child],” as the chamber broke into laughter.9 All but three of the representatives who voted for the bill were white men.10 In language similar to Alabama’s 2019 reproduction legislation and the 1958 legislation proposed by Representative Glass, House Bill No. 180, “An Act To Provide That Any Person Who Shall Become The Parent Of An Illegitimate Child Shall Be Guilty Of A Felony And To Provide The Punishment Therefor,” made having children out of marriage a felony.11 Violators of the proposed law would have to choose between serving a one-to-three year prison sentence or “submit to sterilization in lieu of imprisonment.”12 Representative Meek claimed 9,000 illegitimate births occurred in Mississippi in 1962, and “8,647 of them were illegitimate non-white births.”13 He continued, “the State of Mississippi is subsidizing illegitimacy through welfare payments, and that the moral structure has completely broken down in some segments of society.”14 In support of the bill, State Representative Stone Barefield of Hattiesburg echoed his fellow representatives by telling the Mississippi House of Representatives, “when they start cutting they’ll head for Chicago.”15

Unlike Alabama’s 2019 reproductive legislation, which saw an immediate motion to cloture, the Mississippi Senate Judiciary Committee downgraded the penalty from a felony to a misdemeanor, punishable by 30 to 90 days in jail and up to a $250 fine. House Bill No. 180 passed 30–16 in the Mississippi State Senate, and in the Mississippi House of Representatives 86–22.16 In response to the backlash against the bill, Representative Ben Owen of Columbus stated, “This is the only way I know to stop this black tide which threatens to engulf us,” while urging his colleagues to vote from the floor of the Mississippi House of Representatives.17 This “black tide” Representative Owen alludes to harkens back to Representative Glass’s language in 1958 and foreshadows Reagan-era language used to disparage government-assistance recipients as little more than unqualified beneficiaries. His statement signifies southern politicians’ last-ditch attempt to maintain white supremacy and political power, and thwart the Civil Rights Movement by limiting black women’s reproductive rights. For those active in the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, the ultimate passage simply legalized “in part a situation which already exists,” as evidenced by the colloquial name for such sterilizations: a “Mississippi Appendectomy.”18

Mississippi was not the only Southern state enacting sterilization legislation and establishing sterilization programs after World War II and in response to the Civil Rights Movement. North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia refigured sterilization programs and laws to target black women and enacted or nearly enacted legislation targeting black women’s reproductive rights. In the same way, Alabama is not the only southern state working to restrict or ban abortion at the state level. In 2019 alone, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, and Louisiana have passed extremely restrictive abortion laws, attempting to challenge the constitutionality of Roe v. Wade. Alabama’s Human Life Protection Act, and similar legislation recently passed by other southern states, commences a new phase of restricting women’s bodies. As in previous instances of compulsory and coerced sterilization, these new abortion laws come as last-ditch efforts to maintain political supremacy during a shifting time in the region.

Notes

  1. Edward J. Larson, Sex, Race, and Science: Eugenics in the Deep South (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 146. Return to text.
  2. Dorothy Roberts, Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty (New York: Pantheon Books, 1997), 94. Return to text.
  3. Dorothy Roberts, Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty (New York: Pantheon Books, 1997), 94. Return to text.
  4. Maxwell J. Mehlman, “Modern Eugenics and the Law” in Paul A. Lombardo, ed., A Century of Eugenics in America: From the Indiana Experiment to the Human Genome Era (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011), 228. Return to text.
  5. Maxwell J. Mehlman, “Modern Eugenics and the Law” in Paul A. Lombardo, ed., A Century of Eugenics in America: From the Indiana Experiment to the Human Genome Era (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011), 228. Return to text.
  6. No author, “Other Traffic Jams Are Greater Dangers,” The Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, MS) March 31, 1959. Return to text.
  7. No author, No title, The Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, MS), January 4, 1962. Return to text.
  8. No author, “Planned Parenthood Clinic is Proposed,” The Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, MS), April 5, 1962. Return to text.
  9. No author, “Illegal Sex is Fought in House: 2nd Illegitimacy, Rape Are Attacked in Two Measures,” The Enterprise-Journal (McComb, MS), March 12, 1964. Return to text.
  10. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Genocide in Mississippi, (Atlanta: No Publisher, 1964), 9-12. The three female state representatives included Betty Long of Meridian, Gladys Slayden of Holly Springs, and Berta Lee White of Bailey. Return to text.
  11. Spelling original. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Genocide in Mississippi (Atlanta: No Publisher, 1964), 7. Return to text.
  12. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Genocide in Mississippi (Atlanta: No Publisher, 1964), 7. Return to text.
  13. Charles M. Hills, “Bill on ‘Unfit’ Parents is Given House’s Okay,” The Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, MS), March 12, 1964. Return to text.
  14. The Council of Federated Organizations, The Mississippi Legislature-1964 (Jackson, MS: The Council of Federated Organization, 1964), 30. Return to text.
  15. The Council of Federated Organizations, The Mississippi Legislature-1964 (Jackson, MS: The Council of Federated Organization, 1964), 30. Return to text.
  16. The Council of Federated Organizations, The Mississippi Legislature-1964 (Jackson, MS: The Council of Federated Organization, 1964), 31. Return to text.
  17. The Council of Federated Organizations, The Mississippi Legislature-1964 (Jackson, MS: The Council of Federated Organization, 1964), 31. Return to text.
  18. The Council of Federated Organizations, The Mississippi Legislature-1964 (Jackson, MS: The Council of Federated Organization, 1964), 30. Return to text.

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