Voters in Tennessee will soon decide whether to change the state’s Constitution to allow lawmakers to impose new restrictions on abortion. Tennessee, a kind of oasis in the South for abortion rights, has strict privacy protections enshrined in the Constitution, preventing passage of the onerous anti-choice regulations that have passed legislatures elsewhere. Amendment 1 sets out to change all that.
How black Tennesseans vote on Amendment 1 may prove to be decisive. Seventeen percent of Tennessee’s population is African-American. In the state’s most populous cities, Memphis and Nashville, that percentage jumps to 63 and 29 respectively.
Cherisse Scott directs SisterReach, a Memphis-based reproductive justice organization that’s part of the effort to defeat the amendment. Scott says her organization—the only black-led group in the campaign—has focused its phone banking and canvassing on two Memphis zip codes with high rates of poverty and the dismal health indicators that go along with it, namely high risk of sexually transmitted infections, low birth weight and maternal mortality. Tennessee is “very conservative, it’s very religious, and some Democrats are more purple than blue,” Scott said of the challenges to organizing in the run up to the election. Residents’ struggle to access quality healthcare has made the pitch against Amendment 1 easier, Scott explains. She and her colleagues connect the dots between access to abortion and broader health concerns by talking about the state’s abstinence-only sex education curriculum and Republican Governor Bill Haslam’s refusal to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. In other words, if low-income Tennessee women already have limited options, why punish them further by restricting one of the few choices they can make about what’s best for themselves and their families?
“We’ve yet to see how the state of Tennessee wants to resource black women and girls to get the healthcare and the sex education that we need to be able to thrive and survive,” Scott said.
Beyond the approximately 2,000 households of unlikely voters that Scott says her organization has reached, SisterReach has also been a presence on local historically black campuses, registering and educating voters at Tennessee State University’s homecoming and planning a forum for this week at LeMoyne-Owen College on how Amendment 1 and the other ballot initiatives will affect black communities.
SisterReach has also been busy in churches, a critical place to reach black voters in Tennessee. The organization’s interfaith coordinator has found that one way to reach people in the pews is to turn their attention to scripture. “She’s showing in the Bible where women were self-determining and that was okay, whether we’re talking about Deborah or Tamar or Queen Vashti,” Scott said.
Appeals to faith can be important, but often getting black communities to stand up in favor of abortion rights doesn’t take much nudging. Scott pointed to recent polls of African Americans’ attitudes on abortion that show overwhelming support for access. In one, more than 80 percent of those polled agreed with the statement, “Regardless of how I personally fee about abortion, I believe it should remain legal and women should be able to get safe abortions.”
If Amendment 1 passes, the state’s Republican legislators—who hold a supermajority—will likely begin to chip away at Tennesseans’ ability to access safe, legal abortion. And that will have far reaching implications.
“If we lose, it doesn’t just impact the state of Tennessee,” Scott said. “It impacts women who don’t have access to those services in other states that surround Tennessee.”