As states go, Alabama’s soul is as convoluted as any other. It bathes in complexities. Outsiders never really get its idiosyncrasies, our idiosyncrasies. We love and we despise. We value life and execute inmates. We are, by and large, proud Bible Belters who nonetheless supported the candidacy of a thrice-married presidential candidate who has helped a porn star earn more than 15 minutes of fame.
America wonders about us — not the stereotypical Alabama of civil rights struggles and George Wallace, but today’s Alabama, our Alabama, a state with Deep South beauty and a growing diversity of ideas and possibilities and inclusion. Yet, really, Roy Moore — again?
“The battle for Alabama’s soul” appeared Monday in The Washington Post. The essay was neither a hit job nor under-reported “fake news.” It spoke truth, and it hurt.
“Alabama,” reporter Karen Heller wrote, “has been in the news of late. Indeed, Alabama can’t stop being in the news.”
Not for pleasant reasons, either.
Our prisons are cauldrons of murder, suicides and mismanagement.
Our levels of poverty and inequality are appalling, and the state Legislature seems indifferent.
Our impending near-total ban on legal abortions has earned global condemnation and puts the health of pregnant women — especially poor and minority women — at great risk.
And then, Marshae Jones, Alabama’s latest headline.
She’s the 27-year-old Pleasant Grove woman who was arrested June 26 following a grand-jury indictment for manslaughter. Last December, the then-pregnant Jones fought with a co-worker, 23-year-old Ebony Jemison. Jemison shot Jones, who survived; her 5-month-old fetus did not.
Authorities initially arrested Jemison — the woman who had the gun and whose decision to fire the gun led to the pregnancy’s end. But the Jefferson County grand jury didn’t indict Jemison; it indicted Jones, believing fault rested with the expectant mother. Jemison’s decision to shoot a pregnant woman in the belly went undisciplined. District Attorney Lynniece Washington, who stopped this unimaginable political abuse of a grieving woman, deserves statewide applause, but I doubt she’ll get it.
Alabama may not have intended to define America’s “personhood” movement that is weaponizing pregnancy against expectant mothers. But it is, and it’s far worse than you may imagine.
Thirteen years ago, the state Legislature passed another of its “toughest in the nation” laws: a chemical endangerment statute designed to protect children from expectant mothers who used methamphetamine during pregnancy. Given the rampant meth problem in our state, the law had value.
But in Alabama, we don’t do these things halfway. We make political statements. The Republican-controlled state Supreme Court decided fetuses had the same legal rights as children, and district attorneys and police began targeting women who hadn’t used meth but had minuscule traces of prescription drugs in their systems. It didn’t matter if their newborns tested negative — like the Etowah County woman featured in a 2015 ProPublica report who took half of a valium pill during a difficult stage of her pregnancy and was arrested, even though her baby was fine. Mothers are at legal risk.
“Alabama police and prosecutors,” Michele Goodwin, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, wrote recently in The New York Times, “strategically wield power and influence with hospitals and medical clinicians to ferret out women who ‘endanger’ their pregnancies. By one count, there have been 479 arrested in Alabama for endangering their pregnancies and charged under the state’s chemical endangerment statute.”
No other state charges pregnant women in these cases more than Alabama.
The battle for Alabama’s soul is real. It’s not the typical dichotomy of liberalism vs. conservatism, Doug Jones vs. Roy Moore, GOP vs. Democrats. It’s a battle that exposes Alabama’s often-hypocritical stances on the value of human life.
Outsiders often see us as monolithic — all Californians are liberals; all Texans love guns; all Massachusetts residents are Kennedyesque in their politics — with few dissenters. And they wonder: Why is Alabama so protective of the unborn but scrimps on health care access, refuses to expand Medicaid, limits state funding for social services and treats pregnant women as would-be villains who are guilty until a clean blood test proves their innocence?
What is the real Alabama?
The answer is clear. Alabama’s modern-day politicians have decided three things are above all else: electability, political reputations and the use of the unborn as a battering ram. And nothing protects politicians’ skins more in our state than hatred of abortion and support of fetal personhood. If poor Alabamians don’t have health care, that’s OK. That hypocrisy is acceptable. Helping the poor doesn’t matter on Election Day, anyway.