Opinion: Calling Macon “abortion-free” is misleading. Here’s why we need reproductive justice in Middle Georgia


Marianna Bacallao

Mary Katherine Wiley protests anti-abortion legislation with her son in downtown Macon this May.

This is an opinion article. Any views expressed belong solely to the author and are not representative of The Cluster.

Lecturer Melanie Turner, a PhD candidate of sociology at Georgia State University, asked the audience at her talk on Mercer’s campus Sept. 17 how many of us knew about efforts in 2018 to bring an abortion provider to Macon.

Hardly anyone raised their hands.

Turner was a part of Summit Medical Center, which was approved by the Macon-Bibb County Planning and Zoning Commission to open on 833 Walnut St. last year. Besides first-trimester abortion care, Summit would also have offered gynecological services such as pap smears, vaccines, birth control and more, according to The Telegraph.

You would think that a pro-choice advocate so invested that she worked at an abortion clinic would be sensitive to the complex network of barriers that compound the issue of limited legal abortion access. However, from an advocacy standpoint, Turner’s lecture left a lot to be desired.

My concerns began with the talk’s title: “‘Abortion-Free Macon’: Successful Resistance to Abortion Clinics in Middle Georgia, 1973-2018.” From the name, I couldn’t tell whether the speaker would be pro-choice, pro-life or somewhere in between. It sounded like she was celebrating the dozens of protesters who shut down Summit before it could open. 

Even after Turner revealed that Summit was her own project, she spoke as if she did not have an opinion. She told a pro-choice student who asked her how to respond to a common pro-life argument that her recommendation was not to try to change anyone’s mind. She’s a white, educated, cisgender woman living in an urban center — the typical demographic of pro-choicers — and her reluctance to engage the opposition reveals a lot about the failures within the modern movement: even would-be providers shy away from discussions about abortion rights and declare that as a victory for political balance. False objectivity is not balance. It’s pandering, it’s ineffective and it contributes to stigma against abortion.

Worse, the phrase “abortion-free Macon” is misleading. The Telegraph reported that more than 7,000 abortions from Bibb and its surrounding counties took place between 2012-2016. That includes 2,670 from Bibb alone. The issue is that these individuals — who could include cisgender women, transgender men, and non-binary folks — had to seek abortion care outside of Macon. Pregnant folks in Macon must travel at least two hours to the nearest facility in either Columbus or south Atlanta.

What’s more, these figures only include safe, legal abortions obtained by individuals with the finances, time and transportation to take a day off work, secure childcare if they already have children and travel across the state for their procedure. That means there may be more abortions among Bibb County residents than the data show — unsafe, self-induced abortions performed at home by those who could not afford or manage a trip out of town.

Turner didn’t touch on these topics in her talk about the alleged “abortion-free Macon.” Rather, she discussed the sociological methods behind social movements and how ideas can be organized into solutions to community problems. She just didn’t mention problems aside from legality. There is a difference between “pro-choice” and its intersectional, more effective form, “reproductive justice,” which holds that omitting the challenges that folks face trying to access even legal abortion is irresponsible. With Turner’s talk, I wanted less “pro-choice” and more reproductive justice.

Megan Gordon-Kane, public affairs coordinator and lobbyist at Atlanta-based reproductive health clinic and political advocacy group Feminist Women’s Health Center, told me about some of the factors considered within a reproductive justice framework as opposed to a pro-choice one.

“Reproductive justice as a concept was created by black women in the ‘90s, basically in recognition of the way that the white feminism of the ‘70s and ‘80s was really failing them. Because for example, when you think of the traditional pro-choice movement with a focus on the legal right to get an abortion, it leaves out all of the other things that influence folks’ decision-making, like racism and poverty and other forms of violence or environmental injustice that is making it hard for people to raise their families in dignity regardless of whether they have a legal right to get an abortion,” Gordon-Kane said. 

Feminist Women’s Health Center defines reproductive justice by four cornerstones: the ability to decide whether and when to have a child; the ability to have a safe and healthy pregnancy; to parent with dignity; and to have safe, healthy relationships and bodily autonomy. 

It includes offering each child access to comprehensive sexual education, guaranteeing that each family can afford abortion services, ensuring that each worker earns enough money to raise a child and eliminating healthcare disparities that disproportionately affect marginalized individuals including women, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, rural residents and folks living in poverty. As you can see, this involves so much more than the — still important — legal right to get an abortion.

The issues beyond legality create enormous additional pressures in Georgia specifically, and in Macon even more so.

“We as a society are not supporting people in having healthy pregnancies if we’re not addressing the fact that Georgia has the highest maternal mortality rate in the country. If we’re not addressing that we have one of the highest rates of poverty in the country and one of the lowest minimum wages in the country. That is not reproductive justice, because folks who might want to have a child if they could afford one might feel like they don’t have a choice but to get an abortion because they cannot afford another child, and that’s not the world that we want to live in,” Gordon-Kane said. “How free are your reproductive health decisions when we have such deep poverty in the state and we have all of these other issues?”

If Turner had spoken from a reproductive justice framework rather than a pro-choice standpoint, she could have told a more complete story about abortion access in Macon. Until we understand abortion as a single issue within a system of oppressive limitations on bodily and personal autonomy, Macon will remain a community that refuses the necessary care that a place like Summit Medical Center could have brought us.