The first time I pledged my virginity to Jesus, I was 13 years old, sitting cross-legged on the finished basement floor of the sort of stately home that passes for “middle class” only in the movies. I had not yet gotten braces. I still wore bright ribbons in my hair. I had surreptitiously kissed Ross Morgan on the lips in the backseat of my family’s minivan, but neither of us had opened our mouths — I’m not sure we knew we were supposed to. As I now remember it, I sat there, surrounded by dozens of other seventh grade girls who attended my same junior high (where we learned about states’ rights but not evolution), and was told that every time I let a boy put his hands on me, it was as if I’d taken the white, heart-shaped piece of paper proffered to each of us by the Bible study leader and I’d ripped it; rip it enough times and I’d only have a shredded heart to give the man I would eventually marry. Wide-eyed, pondering that chilling prospect, we were then told that our hearts and souls should be pledged instead to Jesus. It was all about saving our hearts and our souls that day; as far as I can remember, our bodies were never explicitly mentioned.
As it turned out, our bodies had something else that could save them: money. At the time, I attended Mountain Brook Junior High School, in Mountain Brook, Alabama, a suburb of Birmingham whose school district had blatantly invented itself to sidestep desegregation. Here is a place where golf courses spread, where monogrammed thank you notes are endlessly sent, where this Bible study was considered compulsory for the daughters of “good” families, and where my wealthy public middle school had roughly 1,000 students, exactly zero of whom were African American. Even being Jewish was viewed as slightly exotic. My best friend, Mary, whom I passed notes to in math class and who had been adopted from the Philippines as an infant, was sometimes complimented on her perfect English.
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And six years later, by the time my class of about 300 kids was graduating, not one of us had ever had so much as a pregnancy scare — at least not publicly. (One girl a few years ahead of us left school for a while and then returned with a new “baby sister.” Another girl a few years behind had a small bump that one day magically disappeared.) Meanwhile, I don’t know of a single friend who was on birth control; we would have been too terrified to tell our parents we needed it. Either our paper hearts remained unsullied, our male cohorts were fastidious about their condom usage, or something else was going on, something related to our parents’ ability to pay our problems away (most likely some combination of the three).
This week, the Alabama legislature passed what is being touted as the most restrictive abortion legislation in the land, and I’m sure that many hearts in Mountain Brook are rejoicing. Once passed in the state Senate (which it will be) and signed by the governor (which it will be), the Alabama Human Life Protection Act will criminalize any abortion performed after conception occurs, meaning the very nanosecond sperms meets egg. The bill has no exemptions for rape or incest and also neglects to give the mother parental rights in the event of rape, meaning that a mother might be forced to share custody with her rapist. When it comes to repressive legislation, leave it to Bama to go whole hog.
Of course, there are a multitude of obvious ways in which this bill will be rightfully cast as hypocritical. The same legislators who voted for it have by and large voted against gun reform and against expanding access to contraception. In a state where more than half of the births are covered by Medicaid, they’ve also voted against Medicaid expansion, leading to a backlog so long that some pregnant women can’t have their first prenatal appointment until they are well into their second trimester.
It is also aggressively unconstitutional, a bill meant only to thumb its nose at the Supreme Court in an effort to land there in direct challenge to Roe v. Wade. Until then, it will be mired in litigation, the cost of which will fall on the taxpayers of a state in which over a quarter of mothers don’t receive adequate prenatal care and less than half the counties have a delivery room, a state that not once but twice in the past five years has ranked 50th in the country in infant mortality.
But what struck me most in the reports coming out of Alabama this week were not the facts and figures so much as the images of Democrats walking out of the vote in protest, or more specifically, how many of those pictured walking out were people of color. The African American Christian tradition in the South is every bit as strong as the white one — perhaps even more so — and it’s hard to imagine a politician in Alabama getting elected if they didn’t publicly profess the Christian faith. Yet in a state where systemic racism is so entrenched that, in many communities, racism has basically become coterminous with classism, these legislators don’t find that their faith stands in the way of their support of abortion access. They understand that — for all the talk of protecting mothers and the innocent unborn — restricting abortion is also meant to be punitive, to drive home the idea that actions have consequences and that the punishment should fit the crime.
The problem is that in places like Alabama in particular, the “crime” is not always viewed the same, depending on the perpetrator. When the pious, college-bound teenager with the grosgrain ribbon in her hair needs an abortion, her “mistake” is perhaps “out of character” and her future too precious to give up, a price too high to pay for a momentary dalliance. When the young woman from public housing finds herself in the same predicament, however, a different calculation is made. Her pregnancy is a manifestation of her choice to wallow in her “sinful” nature, her poverty proof of some moral and spiritual failing.
Naturally, their punishments likely won’t be the same either. If Roe is effectively overturned and the legality of abortion is left up to the states, those most restricted by the Alabama Human Life Protection Act will be those without the means to arrange for abortion elsewhere, which is why many leaders of color — including Planned Parenthood’s new head, Leana Wen — are vociferously arguing that abortion access is not just a feminist issue, but a social justice one, that it’s not just a matter of women having bodily autonomy but of how the application of laws will affect some women’s bodies more than others (which, it’s important to note, applies to so many issues beyond the right to choose).
“Black women know that whenever you criminalize abortion, then it’s black women who are going to be locked up,” says Georgia state rep. Renitta Shannon, who has sponsored legislation to keep $2 million in taxpayer dollars from going to crisis pregnancy centers, which peddle anti-abortion propaganda under the guise of providing medical advice. “Whenever you don’t cover abortions through insurance,” Shannon continues, “it’s young black women who are going to suffer — we’re the majority of the minimum-wage earners. All this stuff is connected.”
But in Mountain Brook, Alabama, as in halls of government, that connection — or one’s own distance from such entanglements — can make it easy to hold others to a standard to which you may not hold yourself because their predicaments seem removed, and therefore more simplistic. This is not to say that abortion opponents do not care about the fate of all fetuses of all economic classes — I think they unconditionally do — but it is to say that when nuance is lost, equality seems to go along with it.
Not long ago, a pregnant woman from Mountain Brook told me about a discussion in which her father said that if any major fetal abnormalities were found, she should abort — and also, that doing so would be murder under no uncertain terms. If you believe that life begins at conception, such calculations are not made callously, and such decisions are not made painlessly. In deep conflict with his beliefs, her father spoke out of love and compassion, out of his subjective belief of what he felt would be best for his child and for her unborn one. If Alabama has its way, such love and compassion — trusting people to decide what’s best for them in full knowledge of their circumstances — would not be extended broadly. Such love and compassion would be secreted away, hoarded by the most privileged of Alabama’s citizens —those who have the means to escape its borders. It’s enough to break your paper heart.