CLERGY FOR CHOICE NEWSLETTER
Politics From the Pulpit: The Case Against Initiative 26
By Rabbi Debra Kassoff
The campaign against Mississippi Ballot Initiative 26 got off to a slow start.
For one thing, the state supreme court opinion that many expected would take the measure off the ballot before it could complete that momentous transition from embryonic idea to fully birthed reality didn’t come down until the second week of September. For another, the court chose not to rule on the suit, based on the absence of a legal concept called “ripeness,” which in this case essentially meant that the majority of the justices declined to rule on the constitutionality of a measure that was not yet part of the constitution.
So there we were, suddenly: it was September 2011, less than two months before the election, and Initiative 26 was on the ballot. Voters would be asked to consider, for insertion into the Mississippi Bill of Rights, the following:
The term ‘person’ or ‘persons’ shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.
I wish I could say that I sprang immediately into action. Instead, I continued for a few weeks in a fog of mundane, seemingly essential, activity, the sort that too often obscures our true priorities. Scarcely through a busy transition year following a move from Massachusetts, settling into a new home, finding new schools for my two young children, adjusting from full-time to part-time work and becoming, in some respects, a stay-at-home mom, I was distracted.
I did not grow up in Mississippi. I may not stay long enough to raise my daughters to adolescence, to the maturation of their bodies and their reproductive systems, but neither do I know that I won’t. With this ballot initiative, my daughters’ well-being, the preservation of which occupies the majority of my waking hours, was at stake; even so I remained insensitive to the gravity of the situation, and to my responsibilities as a citizen, a mother, and a rabbi. Until:
I read an email from Atlee Breland, a self-described “ordinary mom” who, after the supreme court’s decision, had quickly studied up and been galvanized into forming Parents Against MS 26. Overnight, her one-woman, grassroots organization began raising money, buying ads, printing signs, producing videos, organizing demonstrations, and more.
The email woke me up: Initiative 26 threatened not only the right to abortion, already sorely restricted here, but also the right to use many legal contraceptives. It could, as a practical matter, eliminate in vitro fertilization in Mississippi, and create a legal conundrum for doctors that could result in the loss of women’s lives. It would open up the possibility of criminal investigations into miscarriages.
“What can I do to help?” I wrote back to Atlee.
Ten minutes later, my phone rang.
Atlee reminded me of what, in my distraction, I had forgotten: I could help most by taking a public stand as a spiritual leader, as one committed to the sanctity of life, of all God’s creation.
I am forever grateful to Atlee for this. I needed to speak out, in my role as a rabbi, and now I knew that I needed to. I determined to write a letter to the editor of the newspaper, and invite clergy colleagues to sign with me.
Residing four counties removed from the congregation I serve, I have the luxury of living outside the clergy fishbowl. I can put a sign in my yard and chances are none of my congregants will know. I can appear on local TV, as I did in campaigning against Initiative 26, and pretty much count on none of my congregants seeing me—Greenville has its own stations. What I do outside the congregation, on my own time, is my business, to a much greater degree than it was when I lived and worked in the same community. I could have taken refuge in these circumstances.
But I did not wish to fly under the radar. Conventional wisdom had 26 winning in a landslide, and there was no point fighting if we weren’t going to go all out. I wanted to talk with my congregation about this. I wanted to tell them about my letter in the Clarion-Ledger, which was eventually signed by forty-one other people of faith and reprinted in the Greenville paper. I planned to visit the NO ON 26 headquarters and canvass neighborhoods. I wanted to distribute literature and have conversations about 26 in my synagogue; I wanted to teach about the status of human embryos and fetuses from a perspective of Jewish tradition.
For me, the question was never whether to speak out to my congregants. It was how to open the conversation.
I knew that I didn’t need my congregation’s permission to take this position in my synagogue, but I also knew that I wanted their support, notwithstanding their variety of viewpoints. I discussed how to talk with my congregants about my activism with a close colleague. I credit his advice for setting me on a good course: “Don’t try to convince them to adopt your views on this,” he suggested. Rather, “explain to them how you’ve arrived at your position, how Jewish tradition informs it, and why you’ve decided, as a rabbi and a Jew, to speak out.” Which is exactly what I did, first in a temple bulletin column, and then during a Shabbat service.
As it happened, if there were any in my congregation who supported Initiative 26, I did not hear from them. Everyone I spoke with was worried and appalled by the proposed measure. My biggest challenge was in convincing people that the passage of 26 was not a foregone conclusion. “Just pretend for the next few days,” I urged, “that it might make a difference” if we talk with all our friends, if we put up one “Vote No” yard sign to counter the scores of “Vote for Life/Vote Yes on 26” signs blanketing the state.
In the final days before the election, those of us working on the issue began to sense a shift. Many clergy had come out against Initiative 26 in letters, public statements, private statements, and facebook posts. Doctors’ and nurses’ associations had spoken against 26. Canvassers discovered that people didn’t need to be talked into opposing 26 so much as they needed, once they understood its implications, to know that they were not alone in their reservations. They needed to hear that they could oppose 26 and still love God; or, perhaps more importantly, that God would still love them. Our work was to give voice to the silent, and to make visible the hidden, surprising mainstream: even for Mississippians who believe that abortion is always the wrong choice, Initiative 26 went too far. Who better to gather the waters, to build community, than pastors? We had woken up just in time.
I will always remember the feeling in the room at the election night party when the defeat of Initiative 26 was officially announced, less than two hours after the polls closed. It was an explosive feeling of relief, of empowerment, of pride in our work, in our state; it was joy. We knew that this was only a single battle in a long war, but it was a sweet victory, won against long odds.
And I will always remember the notes I received from congregants both before and after election night, from liberals and conservatives, thanking me for my words, my teachings, and for speaking out for what I believe God wants of us: to approach the mysteries of creation with awe and humility, and to use—to let everyone use— our God-given ability to make tough moral choices when lives hang in the balance.