Due to grassroots organizing and education, the amendment went down to decisive defeat. Politicians take heed.
Tuesday’s solid defeat of the Mississippi Personhood amendment is a victory against extremism and for women’s health and rights, but it is also a big win for progressive political organizing. Voters in the state that Gallup ranks as the most conservative in the nation soundly rejected the move to grant legal status to embryos from the moment of fertilization. The law would have banned abortion without exceptions and directly challenged Roe v. Wade, but it also threatened some forms of birth control and emergency contraception that may result in the loss of embryos, as well as infertility treatments that make use of them.
What’s most interesting about this win is that just ten days ago polls projected exactly the opposite outcome. That was before the Mississippians for Healthy Families Coalition, a local campaign supported strategically and financially by the Planned Parenthood Action Fund and the ACLU, hit the ground. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the PPFA board.) According to Planned Parenthood, the campaign raised $1.5 million dollars, opened four offices across the state, deployed 50 full-time staff, and recruited nearly 1,000 volunteers, most of them in a classic get out the vote operation that made more than 400,000 phone calls and knocked on some 20,000 doors. This tireless effort closed a 31-point gap in just 10 days of active campaigning, possibly establishing a record for voter turnaround in this country.
When it was all over, even outgoing Republican Governor Haley Barbour, a reliable conservative, expressed misgivings about the amendment as government gone too far. (Though in what is now becoming classic behavior for GOP officials and candidates confused about how much they must pander to the party’s right wing, he then reversed himself and said he would vote for it.) The state’s voters, and especially its women, were smarter. Once they understood that the law would have threatened birth control and mandated government intervention in decisions that ought to be personal, including the right to end a potentially life-threatening pregnancy, wise citizens of all political stripes simply voted against it.
The Mississippi victory ought to be viewed as an omen for next year’s presidential and congressional campaigns. For years it has been perfectly clear that a sizable majority of Americans don’t want to criminalize abortion or compromise access to contraception and sensible sex education. But unlike the determined minority of anti-choice and puritanical extremists on the other side, these folks have never privileged social concerns in the voting booth. Perhaps understandably, what’s mattered more to them are economic issues or considerations of national security, and they have moved back and forth between Democrats and Republicans depending on which party’s leadership inspired the most comfort in these zones.
At a briefing in Washington last week I was privy to early polling by the Obama campaign, which has uncovered an important shift, especially among voters between the ages of 30 and 49, who supported the president in the last election but are now abandoning him out of frustration over failed promises and disappointing economic policies. While they also express little confidence in Republican alternatives on these matters, they are deeply concerned by the party’s apparent capitulation to its base of right-wing social extremists. The decision by Congressional Republicans early this year to defund Planned Parenthood is wildly unpopular and apparently registered an astonishing 85 percent disapproval, giving Obama a big opening to win back this group.
Planned Parenthood has shared its own polling with supporters, which demonstrates a solid 65 percent overall approval rating for the organization across the country. And these numbers simply leap off the charts when sorted by age, race, or gender. Support from women, minorities, and young people registers over 80 percent. This is not surprising, since they are the principal beneficiaries of the organization’s services in 800 health centers in all 50 states and online, where some 2 million users now visit the PPFA website each month. One of every five women in America has or will use its services at some point in her lifetime. And beyond the health care it provides, the organization’s political action committee is demonstrating its effectiveness. (Which, of course, only makes anti-choice Republicans even crazier.)
No surprise then that the Obama administration and Democrats in general have suddenly found religion on matters of women’s health. With his now famous “nope, zero” response, the president simply shut down John Boehner’s effort to sacrifice public funds for family planning as part of the deal to reduce the federal deficit and prevent a government shutdown last spring. All of the Republican presidential hopefuls this year, however, have since taken the money back out of their proposed budgets in order to curry favor with conservatives who care about these issues and vote on them in Republican primaries. And all of them supported the Mississippi Personhood amendment. When it comes time for a general election, whoever wins the primary will have a lot of explaining to do.
Dare I say that on this particular “morning after” our erstwhile Republicans, ironically enough, may finally be seeing the value of a “Plan B” that can make the consequences of impulsive, unwise behavior simply disappear?
Ellen Chesler is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and author of Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America.
The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.