As soon as I saw the poll showing initiative 26 as a statistical dead heat, I realized that it would most likely lose. Instinctively, I knew that in the privacy of the voting booth, thousands of “pro-life” voters would reveal their true, ugly nature. It hardly mattered that the retiring governor, and both candidates to succeed him endorsed the measure. It hardly mattered that, this Sunday, Baptist churches all over the state urged their members to vote ‘yes.’ Taking refuge in the sweet security of anonymity, a decisive number of conservatives took the disgraceful, but easy, path of cowardice.
Let’s make one thing very clear from the get-go: initiative 26 was never going to have any legal effect if passed. Roe v. Wade held that “a state may not adopt one theory of when life begins.” The courts would have struck it down in the blink of an eye. Initiative 26, from beginning to end, was only about making a statement; the statement being that Mississippi could not tolerate the legal execution of innocent human lives. By voting it down, the populace made clear that they were in fact perfect willing to tolerate abortion on demand.
If pro-lifers can’t get a majority in a state like Mississippi to agree that abortion is wrong, we’re in huge trouble. If Roe v. Wade were overruled tomorrow, how many states would actually make abortion illegal? Would there even be one? Utah? North Dakota? Louisiana? Idaho? I can’t even say with certainty that any of those would do it. Last night, the Republican candidate for Governor ran 17 points ahead of initiative 26. At least one third, and possibly as much as one half of Republican voters voted ‘no’ on initiative 26. And this in one of the most churchgoing states in America. Depressing? That’s an understatement.
In my second substantive post on this blog, I laid out the truth that the pro-life movement has too long ignored: a substantial majority of Americans approve of legal abortion on demand. Sure 51% may call themselves “pro-life” in some meaningless poll, but once presented with a real choice in the voting booth between life and death, Americans can’t help but choose death. As we learned yesterday, conservative Baptists in the deep south are no exception to this general principle.
As a painfully ironic coda, I should point out that Mississippi remained true to its roots in voting down initiative 26. For in 1966, Mississippi became the very first state in America to make abortion legal for any reason other than a serious threat to the mother’s life or health. A year later, Colorado, North Carolina, and California followed suit, and within a decade, Roe v. Wade was the law of the land. Legal blindness toward human life began in Mississippi 45 years ago. And yesterday’s election made it obvious that the end of this blindness will not begin there.
The 1966 liberalization remains shrouded in mystery. Not a single national newspaper reported it, and most late sixties-era law review articles on abortion legalization don’t even seem to be aware of its existence. This is surprising because a great swarm of media coverage attended the passage of the Colorado law one year later. Even today, many sources mistakenly continue to claim that Colorado’s law was the first liberalization. To this day, I have been unable to discover any source whatsoever which sheds some light on why Mississippi changed its law. In David J. Garrow’s encyclopedic work Liberty and Sexuality, which is probably the most thoroughly researched account ever written of pre-Roe activity in state legislatures, Mississippi’s law is completely ignored.
Literally the only thing we know is the text of the law, which states that abortion is legal “where pregnancy was caused by rape.” The laws passed by Colorado and subsequent states also allowed exceptions for incest, and fetal deformity; what’s more, they were clearly inspired by a 1959 proposal by the American Law Institute (ALI), which recommended legalizing abortion for precisely those exceptions. Why would Mississippi only allow a rape exception?
While I have absolutely no direct proof, I do have an extremely plausible theory. Mississippi legislators were not inspired by the ALI, but simply by racism. Remember, in 1966 the Civil Rights movement was at a crescendo, and the political powers in the state were absolutely horrified by the prospect of integration. In passing the law, it was not just any sort of rape the legislature had in mind, it was interracial rape. A Mississippi legislator, aghast that an innocent white girl might be forced to give birth to a black rapist’s baby, introduces the bill, and it rapidly flies through the legislature. And thus began the tragic opera of legal abortion in America.
Last night, Mississippi might have come full circle, and been the first state to draw a line in the sand, however judicially unenforceable. Instead, voters revealed that a period of 45 years had not softened their hearts in any way. Pro-lifers must be sober-minded and take note – our work is plainly cut out for us.