Our Body Politic

Voting Rights Activism from Fannie Lou Hamer to Today, Tackling High Maternal Mortality Rates in the U.S., and How to Reframe Abortion as a Liberty Issue for All

Episode Notes

Host Farai Chideya talks with LaTosha Brown, cofounder of the Black Voters Matter Fund, about where she thinks constituents like herself belong in the country’s two-party politics. Then Farai looks back at another voting rights and civil rights activist from decades past: Fannie Lou Hamer, as revisited by historian Keisha Blain in her new book: “Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America.” Adriana Lozada, a doula with years of experience helping birthing people, explains what needs to be done to address the maternal health crisis in the U.S. On Sippin’ the Political Tea, Errin Haines of the 19th leads a conversation with OBP legal analyst Tiffany Jeffers and CNN editor Eliza Anyangwe examining the Supreme Court’s arguments about abortion rights, Stacey Abrams’ leadership in Georgia, and the fall-out of Omicron across the globe.


1:18 Voting rights activist LaTosha Brown on what keeps her motivated to make change

12:32 Historian Keisha Blain on the life and legacy of Fannie Lou Hamer

22:26 Doula Adriana Lozada on the U.S.’s maternal health crisis

31:16 Sippin’ the Political Tea: Errin Haines of the 19th, Eliza Anyangwe of CNN, and Tiffany Jeffers of Georgetown Law dissect the week’s news

Episode Transcription

Farai Chideya: Thank you for listening to and sharing Our Body Politic. We're always hoping to reach more listeners. So after you listen today, consider leaving us a review on Apple Podcast. We read them for feedback and it helps others find us. Thanks so much. This is Our Body Politic. I'm the creator and host Farai Chideya. There are certain stories we really go all in on, over and over again on this show because we have to; extremism, COVID 19, and another one is the lead topic today, voting rights. The Brennan Center reported in October that 19 states have enacted over 30 laws making it harder for citizens to vote. This of course comes on the heels of a 2020 election cycle with record turnout. LaTosha Brown was a key player in that turnout in Georgia. She's the co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund and the Southern Black Girls and Women Consortium. I invited her to talk to me about the ongoing fight to protect voting rights in the South and across the US. A small note, I was a bit under the weather for some of these interviews. So you might hear that in the tape. I hope everyone's taking care of themselves. Welcome LaTosha.

LaTosha Brown: Hello. How are you?

Chideya: I am doing really well. It is... nothing going on in America, just another quiet season in politics, voting rights, civil rights. I don't know how you deal with all the time off you have from all of these issues that don't exist.

Brown: It is amazing. It is absolutely amazing how much is happening right now.

Chideya: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, tell us about your work at Black Voters Matter and the struggle to get national voting rights legislation passed.

Brown: It's a story that started and existed way before we created it and formed the organization in 2016, but part of the reason why Cliff Albright, who was the other co-founder and I created Black Voters Matter Fund and Black Voters Matter Capacity Builder Institute in 2016 is primarily because we wanted to create an organization that could help the Black community build independent Black political power. That we felt that our voting power, our voting rights, our political power should not be contingent upon any political party. That in fact, what we needed is to make sure that we had an infrastructure made up of community organizations, community groups, leaders that literally collectively, we created an ecosystem to really support our vision of what we see for our future, so that there could be policies that are actually accountable to us and work in favor of us.

Brown: And so that's how we created the organization, in that spirit with the foundation being ultimately, where is the engagement? The engagement has to be around voting. What we know is that voting is one of the most powerful tools in terms of creating policy that would actually help advance the conditions in our community.

Chideya: Yeah. And that's all wrapped up in work like your impact statement after the 2020 election that this is not about one candidate or one party. That said, traditionally, Black voters in the modern era have been considered part of the Democratic Party base, in fact the bulwark in some ways of the Democratic base. But I see a lot of people in different ways pushing back against the assumption that Black vote votes have to go to the Democratic Party, including people who run as third party candidates who are Black. So looking ahead at the midterms, how do you think this question of Black voters in the Democratic Party is playing out in conversations today and conversations that will continue next year?

Brown: I think that there's a validity in raising this issue of, are we just an extension of a party or are we a political base in ourselves? I think that's a valid question Cliff and I, part of the reason why we created, like I said, Black Voters Matter is precisely moving us towards the second piece that we see ourselves as an independent political body that would actually support legislation and people who literally are aligned with our interest. With that being said, we have to be honest, at this point, if you're supporting the Republican Party, you are supporting an agenda that is anti-Black. And so we can't create a false equivalency to say, "Well, oh yeah, the Democrats and the Republicans are the same." That is just absolutely not true, but we're going to have to be honest around at the end of the day, the Republicans have created an agenda that's been anti poor people, have been anti-Black, and now they're actually nursing white supremacy. And so there is a no starter for us.

Brown: It's not just good enough to say, "Okay, we've got a critique of the Democratic Party. There are things that we need, but the truth that they're not doing." And yes, there's some truth to that. But at the end of the day, we've got to be able to recognize as a major distinction, we have to actually make sure that we're being pragmatic, but also that we're being strategic. And right now the strategic move is by everything. We have to really recognize that the Republican Party has taken up a mantle around white supremacy that under no circumstances should we allow to flourish in this country and we've got to hold them accountable.

Chideya: Yeah. I mean, how do you hold people accountable? What does accountability mean? What does it look like? A lot of people don't believe it can exist within contemporary politics.

Brown: I will say I think there's multiple levels. I'm the first one to say while we do voting work, that I don't believe that all of our problems are going to be solved or resolved through voting. Accountability looks like many things. We have to hold policy makers accountable because they're making decisions every single day that's impacting our lives. So if there are people who are working against the interest of our community, regardless of even their party affiliation, we're going to have to take them out. But that's not enough, also to hold folks accountable, you also have to create a pipeline, a leadership pipeline. So there has to be the cultivation of new leaders, of new voices, of new folks who are addressing this with a different kind of lens of how we can move forward. That we're also empowering them, that we're supporting them. We also have to really use our power in our pocketbooks that at the end of the day, Black people in this nation, if we used our economic power collectively, we would be the 12th largest nation in the world.

Brown: That's a tremendous amount of economic power. And so we have to hold those corporations accountable. I also think that we have to use the power of narrative. I often say that we're in a narrative war, that part of what is happening from what we're seeing it on social media, we're seeing it in national media, we're even seeing new networks that have been created for the sole purpose of pushing false propaganda that's rooted in fear, that is rooted in racism. And so what we have to do those of us who believe in freedom, those of us who have some measure of integrity, we have to also find ways to get our stories out. The stories of the things that we're doing powerfully in our community, where we are leveraging our power, that we are making changes in our community, where we are effectively using the tool to vote along with economic tools, along with even organizing and also institution building.

Brown: So I think there's a variety of ways around holding people accountable. But I think one of the ways is if you sum it all up, it is essentially Black people standing in the space to use our power and use the different tools and leverage that we have to be able to use our power towards accountability.

Chideya: Yeah. I mean, I wanted to bring up a specific individual, Annie Polite. Tell us about who she is. I was reading a couple articles about her and what she represents to you.

Brown: Ms. Polite is 87 years old. She's in rural Georgia in Brunswick, Georgia. And here's a woman that really is, I mean, retired. That she could actually go back to her home. She could literally have her kids to take care of her, but one of the things that she did is she's been walking around the courthouse in the Ahmaud Arbery case that came up. She actually was one of the ones that was like a fire pistol, literally getting that community engaged. And I think at the end of the day, no matter where we are in the spectrum, that we literally have to stand in the space of our power. And what Ms. Annie did is standing in the space of her power. You know what she did? She literally catalyzed her entire community. She actually got more people that were engaged and inspired to stand with her.

Brown: The second thing, I think: she's 87 years old. And this is a woman that religiously was like, "I'm going to walk around the courthouse around this case." That's some power right there. I mean, how can you say you're tired when Ms. Annie is 87 years old and she's literally walking around the courthouse and still fighting for justice. And so remember that Ahmaud Arbery incident actually happened before George Floyd. There were months that went by that nobody outside of that community, that the nation didn't really know what was happening and it was with that community stepping up and using their voice and standing in their power, people just like Ms. Annie, that now what we see is we see this landmark case, but I think also communities all across this nation, all across the world have been inspired by the actions of this rural community in Georgia.

Chideya: You at Black Voters Matter often have joy built into your events; food, singing, dancing, celebrity appearances. How do you incorporate joy into this work when it's hard and a lot of people structurally don't seem to want you to do this kind of voter engagement? What keeps you going in a spirit of joy?

Brown: (singing). Well the first thing I did right, was the day I started to fight. Keep your eyes on the prize, and hold on hold on... you know, it's that spirit.

Chideya: That is beautiful.

Brown: Thank you.

Chideya: It is.

Brown: That spirit-

Chideya: You have an amazing voice.

Brown: Thank you sister. Thank you so much for that. That's part of my joy. Part of my joy is that, that particular song, which was a freedom song that marchers in Selma, Alabama, which I'm a native of, when they got together on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, that was one of the songs that they would sing. And so they had a song in their heart, which actually helped them feel connected to their own humanity and reminded them of their own collective power. And they had the will to do what needed to be done to change. And they had a vision, keep your eyes on the prize. And it didn't matter that they didn't have a lot of political leverage power at the time. They didn't have a lot of economic power at that time. But what they had is they had a vision and a determined mind and they had a song in their heart.

Brown: At the end of the day it's not just the politics. The politics impact the policy and it absolutely helps shapes the environment, but our humanity, I was born with my humanity. It wasn't given to me by this world. It certainly wasn't given to me by the US government and it can't be taken away from me. And so when things really, really get hard for me, I have to lean into my humanity. I have to pull out that song in my heart. My grandmother, Nelly Gamble was born in 1910 in Alabama. She would often just go around the house and she would hum all the time. And I called her Mama. And I would think to myself, "Why is Mama humming all the time?" I get it now, because I even find myself that in those moments that seem so difficult, that at the end of the day at the very, very least, what I can do is lean into my humanity and standing in my agency of that. And so that's part of how I keep my joy. And I sing a lot of songs and I drink champagne. So that helps as well.

Chideya: I love that. You keep on just shining your light.

Brown: Thank you.

Chideya: That was LaTosha Brown, co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund. You may have heard this voice and this quote before.

Fannie Lou Hame...: We are sick and tired of being sick and tired.

Chideya: That of course is the iconic Fannie Lou Hamer speaking at a rally in 1964 for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. She helped organize the MFDP as an alternative to Mississippi's Democratic Party, which was entirely controlled by whites. With her activism and her very life, Hamer did not fit the mold of what a Black female leader in the Democratic Party could look like. It's a message we can continue to learn from according to my next guest, Keisha Blain, who's an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh. Her new book is Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer's Enduring Message to America. Professor Blain, welcome.

Keisha Blain: Thank you so much for having me.

Chideya: Let's start with 1962. She was talking to a journalist and described going to a mass meeting in Mississippi. And she said to the journalist, "I had never heard that I had the right to vote. I was curious. So I went to the meeting." Right now, it seems inconceivable maybe that someone in 1962 wouldn't have known that they had the right to vote. What's the context behind that?

Blain: Yes. I think there are several factors to consider. In the early 1960s, only 5% of Black people in the state of Mississippi were registered to vote. And we're talking about 5% out of an estimated 450,000 people. And one of the reasons why the statistics are quite startling is because there were so many tactics the white supremacists employed to block people from the ballot box. That included unrelenting violence, that included poll taxes, that included literacy tests, that included an array of strategies and it also included an attempt to keep people from knowing about their rights. It was about withholding information. And that often came through the act of withholding access to formal education. So Fannie Lou Hamer, it's not surprising then that it took her pretty much 44 years of her life before she found out that she had the right to vote as a citizen of the United States.

Chideya: Fannie Lou Hamer's body was a battleground. She was sterilized against her will. She was beaten by police leaving her blind in one eye and causing the kidney damage that later helped cause her death. There's such a range of atrocities that were forced on her and yet she kept going. How do you make sense of her body as a landscape of politics?

Blain: Fannie Lou Hamer encapsulates just the myriad of violence. I mean violence isn't, I should say plural because she endures the forced sterilization as you point out and then two years later, she endures this brutal beating in a prison cell in Winona, Mississippi. And she's also the victim of sexual assault. And all of these things I think matter because what happens is Hamer, when she emerges as a civil rights activist and she is catapulted to the national stage in '64, she brings all of these experiences to the fore. So she's not just talking about voter suppression. She's not just talking about the need to expand Black political rights. She's talking about violence and she's talking about it through the lens that gets us to see the intersections of race and gender and class. Her life then provides a crucial window into just a myriad of experiences that Black people endured and the way that they were exploited and assaulted by both state, but also by private actors.

Chideya: Yeah, I mean, it strikes me looking at some of the photographs in your book. There's Fannie Lou Hamer on a panel with Gloria Steinem and others around gender. And then there's stories of how she interacted with traditionally famous civil rights figures who've gotten a lot more shine. Her life as a sharecropper. How did that position her within or outside of what most people think of as the civil rights movement?

Blain: One of the reasons she has been marginalized within mainstream narratives of the civil rights movement is because she did not fit the mold of what many people thought of as a leader of the civil rights movement. And it's not solely on the matter of gender. I mean, we know that narratives tend to be male dominated anyhow, but it's also on the matter of class. And as you pointed out, Hamer was a sharecropper. She was someone who had a sixth grade education. Now, if you're talking about Black leadership through the lens of what we describe as the politics of respectability, then the focus will be primarily on those who are well educated, those who are from middle class and elite backgrounds, those who know how to dress the part, how to speak a certain way, all of these things matter.

Blain: And let's be clear. One of the reasons why respectability politics was and remains quite meaningful for many people is because it's seen as a political strategy to supposedly help others see that in fact, people of African descent are equal to other racial groups. Of course it backfires and it backfires internally because it then provides this lens through which even within Black communities, individuals begin to cast aspersions on certain groups and begin to treat some differently than others because of their social economic status. And that's exactly what happened in the case of Fannie Lou Hamer. Hamer could not boast about having a PhD or having had an experience to attend college. She did not have those experiences, but she had life experiences and she knew what it was like to endure poverty and hunger. And she drew from those experiences to speak boldly and to talk about racism and white supremacy. But for some people, the life experience was simply not enough.

Chideya: Right now, you can see echoes of Hamer's devotion to equity in America in people like Stacy Abrams. You are also seeing people emerge into leadership that has never been held by a Black woman like the vice presidency, a Black and Asian woman. Looking at the arc of history from Fannie Lou Hamer to today, where do we go in thinking about what the ongoing struggle of Black women and women of color in leadership and in democracy is?

Blain: Hamer ran for Congress. She hoped that she might have an opportunity to in fact, have a seat at the table and be a part of the larger effort to overturn decades of racist laws and policies. Now, she was unsuccessful in that sense, but she ended up, I think, inspiring so many others to run for office. And you mentioned the vice president who, as I discussed in the last chapter of the book, mentions Fannie Lou Hamer in her acceptance speech. And so I think we have to acknowledge the progress that has been made. The challenge, however, is making sure that we don't fall into the trap of believing that only certain people should have a seat at the table. And here, I think about class. I think about someone like Cory Bush. I think about the kinds of critiques around her and she in fact is an example in my mind of someone who is operating in a similar vein of Fannie Lou Hamer, who comes out of the grassroots organizing context, who is very much tapped into what is happening on the local level, and then runs for office, is successful, is in fact elected and supported widely by the people. I mean, it really is this triumphant kind of story of the power of democracy. And yet she finds herself being heavily critiqued by others in her party. It shows how much work we still have to do so that it's not just saying that Black women get to lead in various capacities, but more to the point that Black women of varied social economic backgrounds can have a voice and can be fully respected and that people will listen to them and not simply push them to the side and try to suggest that somehow they are perhaps too radical or too difficult or these kinds of descriptions that we often use to diminish Black women leaders.

Chideya: Professor Blain, thank you so much for sharing your work with us.

Blain: Thank you so much.

Chideya: That was Keisha Blain, professor at the University of Pittsburgh, president of the African American Intellectual History Society and MSNBC columnist. Her book is "Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer's Enduring Message to America." And it's out now. Here on Our Body Politic, we cover what families are going through in the pandemic, as well as the legislators, activist and journalist trying to advocate for better policies for parents in the US. This advocacy work starts at birth. While in most countries around the world, the rate of mothers dying due to pregnancy is stable or declining, a World Health Organization study found that here in the US, the numbers are going in the opposite direction.

Adriana Lozada: We get this research in 2017 that shows that since the year 2000, in the US, that rate was climbing. That, coupled with the fact of how much money we're spending on our maternity care, on our perinatal care was very alarming.

Chideya: That's Adriana Lozada, birth doula, childbirth and postpartum educator and creator and host of the Birthful podcast, which is also produced by LWC Studios.

Lozada: I've been doing this for about 15 years almost. And in that span of time, I've seen so many changes in terms of awareness of what birthing people need and centering those new families a little bit more. So I became a doula almost by accident. My daughter is now 16. When she was born... My background is in journalism and I really dove deep into all the information. And the more I read, the more I learned, the angrier I got. The more I realized, wait, the system is messed up, I felt like I wanted to do a truth campaign, but for maternity, because there was so much that people needed to know, so many myths and misunderstandings. But I had a newborn and I was going through postpartum depression and I didn't have a family support around me because we recently moved to a different city. So I became a doula to help one couple at a time, one person at a time and grow it from there on a very micro level. Fast forward to eight years ago, I started the Birthful podcast for that reason, on that continuum to amplify the information for new and expectant parents and to increase their confidence.

Chideya: As a birth doula, Lozada is hired by the birthing person to support them and their partner, if they have one, from the onset of labor until one to two hours after the baby is born. There are also antepartum, postpartum and breastfeeding doulas, all of whom help the person at various stages of pregnancy and birth. Doulas put the needs of the birthing person first. So Lozada has seen upfront how the perinatal system in the US leads to unnecessarily high rates of maternal mortality and mistreatment.

Lozada: The US is one of the countries that spends the most in perinatal health and has some of the most dismal outcomes and pretty much the worst outcomes for any high income countries. So when that report came out, alarm bells went off and we started to get more reporting around it. And then more research was done trying to really get to the why, why are we in this crisis? And the answer is really super complex because it has to do with both social determinants of health, which is basically the environment you live in and how you live. So your access to healthcare and good food and your economic safety and your access to housing, your exposure to pollutants and to stress. All of those things can affect your health. But then you also have the systemic and structural determinants of health, which are things like racism and classism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, xenophobia, and that also impacts the healthcare you receive.

Chideya: Because of this, the maternal health crisis impacts people differently across different demographics in the US population.

Lozada: The average is that if you're a Black person, you're three times as likely to die in childbirth than if you're not. And for Native Americans, it's two times higher, but that's only focusing on maternal deaths. Then you have all the near misses, meaning people who had a situation that was really, really scary and they almost died. And those are alarmingly high for Black and people of color. The Birthplace Lab has come out with some research lately classifying mistreatment in birth, for example. And it's been shown that one in six people will be mistreated during birth. And if you're a person of color, if you are Black, if you are Native American, non-white Hispanic, you will have higher levels of mistreatment. And this include anything from being yelled at to having physical violation of your body, to being coerced into having care that you didn't want or having care withheld from you or just plain being ignored. So this explains, for example, how Serena Williams almost died, that's a near miss, even though she was advocated for herself, she was being mistreated by being ignored. That's a systemic problem, a systemic racism that's affecting healthcare.

Chideya: And that's where the Momnibus Act comes in. It's a package of 12 bills introduced year proposing comprehensive solutions to maternal mortality in the US from increasing funds for community based organizations, working to improve health outcomes to diversifying the perinatal workforce, that's the doctors, midwives, mental and behavioral health professionals and doulas like Lozada.

Lozada: So the way the system is structured right now in terms of insurance and in payment, it's really hard to pay for doulas. It's not traditionally covered by anything. People need to pay for it out of pocket and not everybody can afford it when it's so beneficial. So there's a lot of great things in the Momnibus that address the inequities by centering those that are being hurt the most.

Chideya: Aspects of these bills have passed in other forms. For example, the COVID relief package passed earlier this year temporarily extended Medicaid eligibility for new moms to a year after they gave birth. The Build Back Better bill that Democrats are working on in the Senate now would make that extension permanent. Along with the Momnibus bills, Lozada is keeping an eye on paid family leave, which also factors into the maternal health crisis.

Lozada: Maternity related deaths occur during pregnancy, birth and up to a year postpartum. And so half of those happen after the baby is born, happen within that first year. So four weeks of paid family leave, even that is insufficient. In the world the average is 29 weeks of paid family leave. The average. The average is 29 weeks with 16 weeks for paternity leave. And here we are arguing about 12 or four weeks or zero weeks.

Chideya: There's definitely a lot of work left to do.

Lozada: So it's been five years that this report came out from the World Health Organization and people went, "Wait a second, why is this?" And research got deep into finding some answers. And even if they were answers that forced us to reckon with really ugly parts of ourself, the fact that there's a bias that Black people feel less pain in healthcare and that affects the medicines that they receive and the care that they receive. That's really ugly. It's like the problem is really being seen and named by everybody and then now it's a matter of what do we tackle first? But knowing that we have to keep the conversation moving forward.

Chideya: Adriana Lozada is a birth doula and the host and creator of the podcast Birthful. Her latest episode is a riveting conversation about paid family leave and why it matters. Find it wherever you find your podcast. I'm Farai Chideya. This week on Sippin' the Political Tea, I'm handing the reins to my collaborators on the show. Errin Haines is editor at large at the 19th and Our Body Politic contributor extraordinaire. She'll be leading the round table this week.

Errin Haines: Thanks Farai, we miss you, but we will march on in your stead. I'm Errin Haines, editor at large at the 19th. And this week, I'm joined by Eliza Anyangwe, editor at CNN's award-winning "As Equal" series, which is focused on systemic gender inequality. Welcome back to Our Body Politic, Eliza.

Eliza Anyangwe: Thank you for having me Errin.

Haines: And we're joined by Tiffany Jeffers, Our Body Politic legal analyst and professor at Georgetown Law. Good to be with you again as always Tiffany.

Tiffany Jeffers: Hi, Errin. Good to be here.

Haines: So as always, there's lots of news to get into. So let's just jump right in. Last week, you had the Supreme Court with oral arguments over the constitutionality of a 2018 Mississippi state law that banned abortion operations after the first 15 weeks of pregnancy. Here's a clip of Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor speaking during those oral arguments.

Justice Sonia S...: When does the life of a woman and putting her at risk enter the calculus? Meaning right now, forcing women who are poor, and that's 75% of the population and much higher percentage of those women in Mississippi who elect abortions before viability, they are put at a tremendously greater risk of medical complications and ending their life.

Haines: Okay. Tiffany, help us unpack this. What were the main arguments that stood out to you? And what did you think of Mississippi Solicitor General Scott Stewart's litigation strategy?

Jeffers: So I do want to just point out that I found Advocate Stewart to be a bit on the disrespectful side in the way he continued to interrupt the women justices. And I know it's something that maybe wasn't a big part of the case, but that type of, I would say male dominance in argument to women who have ascended to the highest level of their profession, it just irks me. So I just wanted to say that.

Haines: Absolutely, mansplaining abortion. Imagine that.

Jeffers: Imagine that. So Errin, the arguments, it's the same old story that the Republican agenda has put forth over the years that viability doesn't matter and that Roe was just wrong, egregiously wrong. Legally, it's not in the constitution, therefore it's not a right that anyone should have access to. That's the crux of the Mississippi argument in this case. However, it's important that we even think about what viability means. It means that this fetus cannot survive outside of the womb. Why are we having a discussion when a fetus cannot survive outside of the womb? And so that really just baffles me as a legal argument that has withheld years and years. They've had it on their agenda for so long.

Jeffers: On the opposition, the argument is that Roe is good law. There's no reason to overturn precedent in this way when there's no egregious wrongdoing. It would be an upending of judicial status to overturn precedent in that way. So those were the main arguments, but what's really important, Errin is that we listen to not necessarily what the advocates are arguing, we know that from the briefs. We need to listen to what the justices are asking and their commentary and conversation with each other. What I found interesting was the Chief Justice's efforts at findings some middle ground here, maybe we're not going to overturn Roe completely in its entirety. Maybe we won't outlaw abortion. Maybe we'll just move that viability line further and closer to where conservatives feel more comfortable. But I think the remaining justices on the core are at an all out war and it's going to be hard for him to find allies to join that middle of the road opinion.

Haines: Yeah. Now see, this is exactly why I need my Supreme Court whisper legal friends like you, Tiffany, to tell me what we can glean from what the justices are asking. And a lot of times, you don't necessarily know which way these cases are going to go based on what they're saying, but so many people came out of those oral arguments thinking this is definitely a situation where Roe looks like it may be imperiled. Eliza, I want to come to you with the same question. I mean, now that this issue of abortion rights has been reignited in the highest court, what strikes you after these hearings?

Anyangwe: So as someone who is Cameroon born, lives in Europe, and of course a journalist focusing on gender issues, a couple of things occur to me. The fact that we are looking to America, one of the world's most influential countries, arguably the world's most powerful country and looking at this gradual and picking of women's fundamental rights. The question of abortion is essentially a question of ownership of one's body and who gets to decide what is happening with your body and what you can and cannot do to the point where you can be criminalized and people who support you or work with you or provide services to you can be criminalized for doing so. So there is this... Your jaw is slack as you watch what is unfolding in the US.

Anyangwe: The other thing that strikes me is that it ends up becoming quite a technical conversation about the law, about bureaucratic processes like what needs to happen next. And we do not discuss this in the way that territory, whether it is Libya or Afghanistan or Sarajevo was besieged. And instead, we talk about these incremental movements in the law and not this outright sense of horror and the sense that this is important to everybody, whether they have a womb or not. So as a journalist covering these issues, when I'm looking at what is coming out of Mississippi, when I'm looking at what came before from Texas and thinking about how to report on these things, I think how do I get people to be interested in these wider assaults on rights and on autonomy as opposed to the incremental details of the law?

Haines: Yeah. I mean, what we are talking about is pregnant people's liberty in a large way. And the idea that these abortion bans represent more than just isolated state law making or state's rights. Justice Blackman noted in a 1986 majority opinion reaffirming Roe, "Few decisions are more personal and intimate, more properly private, or more basic to individual dignity and autonomy than the decision to terminate a pregnancy." So I take your point on really the question of liberty and also the question of the undue burden that Justice Sotomayor alluded to in that clip that we referenced before. Tiffany, from a legal standpoint, talk about the consequences that could come from restricting abortion access and really just what makes this case so momentous.

Jeffers: So this case is momentous because the court is deciding a right that has been settled law for 50 years. And Justice Alito during arguments brought up Plessy v. Ferguson, which was the case indicating that Black persons were not human and saying, well, we overturned that. Why can't we overturn... Essentially, the court has within its purview, the right to overturn bad law. And I just was really offended at the use of a case like Plessy to indicate the court's power. To me, it felt as if Justice Alito was... It was like a warning signal to Black buddies that, "Hey, we hold your humanity in our purview and in our balance in determining whether your humanity is real or not, whether you have the right to exist." I just found that to be so offensive.

Haines: That's a really striking point. My ears perked up when I heard that too. I mean, I was frankly riveted listening to oral arguments. It was just such an extraordinary thing to be able to hear and the reference to Plessy, the reference to Brown v. Board, definitely, I think signals just the point that you're making. Okay. So Tiffany, I want to ask you about whether you think Democrats are going to make this a key issue in the 2022 midterm elections. Abortion was something that came up in the Virginia governor's race, but not really something that seemed to resonate with voters, but are we looking at a new era of abortion wars for our elections?

Jeffers: Oh, Errin I'm so torn because there are so many issues that Democrats have to run on in the mid term elections and have to respond to after the four years of Trump. And so I don't know that abortion access and reproductive justice is going to make it to that top echelon of overarching campaign goals for the Democrats.

Anyangwe: I would love to just add that actually we wrote an explainer for CNN International's audiences to help them understand what was happening with the Texas abortion ban. And one of the stats we referenced was that in 2020, there was an Ipsos survey that found that the majority of 18 to 34 year olds in the US are actually in favor of expanding abortion access. So that is one of these other areas where those of us who are outside the US and look at actually how the vast majority of US citizens are actually closer in their view to let's say Medicare or abortion access than the most partisan and usually those are the party donors.

Anyangwe: The challenge as I see it for the US, whether it is the Democrats or the Republicans, in taking this up is that while people are generally pro expanding abortion access, there are so many much more visible issues than the question of abortions. So this is where... What I was saying before about how do we make this as important as if we were talking about conflict? And how does this become not just about the ovaries or the womb of someone who can bear children but actually a question of liberty that affects all Americans? How do we situate it alongside climate change or student debt? As Tiffany already said, it's unlikely that at least from the outside I'm expecting to see them do so.

Jeffers: Yeah.

Haines: Well, a lot of competing interests is both of you mentioned Democrats have signaled that they would aim to make abortion rights a focus in next year's midterms. The Supreme Court's ruling on this Mississippi case is expected to come in June, just five months before the midterms. I think what's less clear is what can happen politically if the Supreme Court overturns our guts abortion rights in this major case because the Democratic led Congress is unlikely to have the votes to counteract that legislatively, insert filibuster debate here. So as the native Georgian on the panel, I feel like we should take a moment to talk about Stacy Abrams because she announced her entry into the 2022 gubernatorial race. And Tiffany, I want to start by asking if you're surprised by her announcement.

Jeffers: So I absolutely co-sign discussing this Erin. I'm not a native Georgian, I lived there for five years, but Stacy Abrams is my Spelman sister. So I always want to talk about the beautiful and amazing thing-

Haines: Georgia adjacent. You're Georgia adjacent.

Jeffers: Georgia adjacent. I'm not surprised that she is entering this race. She has made it abundantly clear that her goal is to be governor of Georgia and one day the president of the United States. And I think she'll absolutely do both, although I'm not as optimistic as my Spelman sister is in this Congress passing voting rights legislation, if their focus will be on passing abortion access legislation or voting rights legislation or if they think they can tackle both.

Haines: Yeah. I would just note that Glynda Carr over at Higher Heights has a really interesting op-ed in Newsweek about the reason that representation matters, especially at the gubernatorial level and just the historic absence of Black women on the gubernatorial level being problematic in terms of representation for the nearly 23 million Black women and girls in the United States and the almost exclusively white overwhelmingly male gubernatorial leadership of this country because state specific policy and laws that governors signed into being often impact people's lives more significantly than anything that's being created on a national level. So I encourage people to read that Newsweek op-ed, raised some really good points.

Haines: So let's turn to the topic of vaccine equity and the new travel restrictions in light of the Omicron variant. Here is a clip of Dr. Ayoade Alakija, co-chair of the African Union's African Vaccine Delivery Alliance speaking in an interview with the BBC about the travel lockdown in South Africa.

Dr. Alakija: Why are we locking away Africa when this virus is already on three continents? Nobody's locking away Belgium, nobody's locking away Israel, why are we locking away Africa?

Haines: Countries around the world are restricting travel from South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe among others as Omicron emerges. But Eliza, what do you make of these bans? And do you agree with Dr. Alakija's statement? And to her point, why are we locking away and targeting the African continent?

Anyangwe: Yeah, I mean, this is something that affects me personally. So my parents, both retired, live in South Africa. My brother and his family live in England and I live in the Netherlands. And after months of being on hold, unable to plan, my mother has never met her one year old first grandchild. We had finally decided we were all going to be able to head home to see my parents and get a little bit of sunshine. And then Omicron led to the travel bans. And once again, my family is unable to get together. Now, of course, given that as the news started to emerge that Omicron was even in the Netherlands before it was in South Africa, given that we know that the South African scientists who were working on this were being transparent in revealing what they had found because, hey, it is a global pandemic, to see these knee jerk reactions proves to us a couple of things.

Anyangwe: The first is that policy makers really don't give a toss about the facts. They're trying to act and they want to act in the ways that seem least disruptive for the electorate, so the things that people will be less angry about. So yeah, let's ban people from coming from South Africa, but let's not enforce lockdowns or enforce mask wearing. Those things that they were much more hesitant particularly here in Europe also to act on. And then of course, the myth making. I saw a tweet that said how Omicron has become a Black migrant from Africa is probably the biggest race switch up since Jesus became white. And this is so important to note. And this talking about it distances ourselves from it and again, diminishes our ability to take this on as a global pandemic, as a global issue, because we're playing political games. I'm both emotionally attached and hurt by what's happening, but also just intellectually it's absolutely stupid.

Haines: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, definitely some disingenuous conversations happening just around Omicron, around South Africa, around vaccine equity and access.

Anyangwe: Yeah. Aside from the racist bigotry and the xenophobia, is like there are clear undertones of this. Let's not forget economic power. The reason that the US is not banning the Netherlands or that Britain isn't banning the Netherlands or any of these other countries, is the sense of the cost of damaging those relationships are perceived to be far greater than the cost of damaging relationships with Southern Africa. So we cannot underestimate the fact that the exploitation of Africa and thus the poverty of these countries also means that they do not get a level playing field in terms of being treated as equal partners in tackling a global pandemic.

Haines: Absolutely. And so to that end, will the discovery of Omicron be a wake up call to these rich countries like the UK, Australia, the United States? I mean, I remember the G8 Summit earlier this year where these countries were pledging to address this pandemic equitably. What is it going to take to end vaccine inequity specifically when we're talking about places like the continent of Africa, where we know large numbers of people are not vaccinated, but that is a question of equity and access to the vaccine in large part?

Anyangwe: I think in the short term, it's going to take a very different type of leader. It takes courage to not be short termist in terms of how you propose to solve problems. We're now actually trying to hunker down and hold onto our unequal gains of not giving away the IP as we need to. And we saw with AIDS in the '80s, that if we do not see this as a global problem, if we make it first, a thing that happens as the framing was, this is the gay disease, or we make it something that is happening to Africans and not allow for generics and not allow for comprehensive treatment and not allow for education, we will not be able to get to the bottom of it.

Anyangwe: And it just seems like we are not learning our lessons and history is repeating itself. And so eventually we will have to get to the point where leaders are able to say that my people are not safe until all people are safe. And to educate your population about this, we need the kind of narratives coming out of places like Hollywood, that point to solidarity rather than charity models. So that people start to understand in ways that are much more subtle, how our lives are all interconnected. And at the moment, we don't see these messages anywhere. And so it becomes harder for policy makers to take the higher moral ground.

Haines: Unfortunately, we are going to have to wrap it up here though, but thank you so much for joining me, Eliza and Tiffany.

Jeffers: Thank you, Errin.

Anyangwe: Thanks so much, Errin.

Haines: And that was Eliza Anyangwe, editor at CNN's award-winning As Equal series and Tiffany Jeffers, Our Body Politic legal analyst and professor at Georgetown Law.

Chideya: And that was Errin Haines, editor at large of the 19th moderating Sippin’ the Political Tea. Thanks, Errin. And thank you for listening to Our Body Politic. We're on the air each week and everywhere you listen to podcasts. Our Body Politic is produced by LWC. I'm the creator and host, Farai Chideya. Juleyka Lantigua is executive producer. Jen Chien is executive editor. Our senior editor is Veralyn Williams. Paulina Velasco and Sarah McClure are our senior producers. Cedric Wilson is lead producer and makes this episode. Our political booker is Bridget McAllister. Emily Daly is assistant producer. Original music by Associate Sound designer, Kojin Tashiro. Production assistance from Mark Betancourt and Natyna Bean.

Chideya: This program is produced with support from Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, Democracy Fund, the Harnisch foundation, Compton Foundation, the Heising Simons Foundation, the BeMe Community, Katie McGrath and JJ Abrams Family Foundation, and from generous contributions from listeners like you.


Chideya, Farai, host. “Voting Rights Activism from Fannie Lou Hamer to Today, Tackling High Maternal Mortality Rates in the U.S., and How to Reframe Abortion as a Liberty Issue for All.” Our Body Politic, Diaspora Farms LLC. December 10, 2021. https://our-body-politic.simplecast.com/