“I think what people are missing is that they’re coming for the 14th Amendment.”
Laurie Bertram Roberts, executive director of the Yellowhammer Fund and a seasoned reproductive justice advocate in Mississippi, surprised me when she said that.
She’s right, of course, but the way she phrased it struck me. Oftentimes people will warn that conservatives are coming for your birth control. Or for the right of same-sex couples to marry and adopt or foster children without discrimination.
But “they’re coming for the 14th Amendment” means more than that.
It means conservative Christian evangelicals have their sights set on dismantling the 14th Amendment, and they’re not just coming for what law nerds call substantive due process rights. Those are rights that relate to intimate areas of people’s lives: the fundamental right to privacy, out of which springs the right to abortion and the right to contraception, along with other rights related to childbirth, childrearing, marriage, and sex.
It means they’re coming for the part of the Constitution that is supposed to level the playing field for systematically minoritized and oppressed people. It’s not just due process rights that conservatives are after—it’s the very basis of the right to equal protection, too.
They want to strip 14th Amendment protections from people who are alive and breathing and confer those protections on eggs, embryos, and blastocysts.
Roberts, also a co-founder of the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund, is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to reproductive justice advocacy in the South. And she knows her way around the law because, as she said to me, “I may not be a lawyer but I definitely study up on the law.”
I spoke with her for a few hours in two illuminating conversations. Here is part of that conversation, which has been edited for clarity.
Laurie Bertram Roberts: I think what people are missing is that they’re coming for the 14th Amendment. They’ve been saying it explicitly.
The thing is they always whisper about it first. That’s what I think people fail to realize—they’ve been whispering about taking down Roe since 1973. They literally were saying in 1974 that the way to get around Roe was to create personhood for fetuses.
Imani Gandy: It’s fascinating that you said that. Usually people will say something like, “They’re coming for privacy rights.” Or, “They’re coming for birth control.” But you said they’re coming for the 14th Amendment.
LBR: So much of the foundations of what we have as far as civil rights and feminist progress is based on the 14th Amendment. And so, how better to get rid of all of that than by getting rid of and attacking the 14th Amendment? Let’s be real, white supremacists have had issues with the 14th Amendment since day one.
IG: When you say that they’re coming for the 14th Amendment, you’re not just saying they’re coming for these specific rights, but they’re coming for the very basis of the rights that people have?
LBR: White supremacists are fighting for power. Obviously they have money power. I’m talking about the cultural power that they hold in the courts. All of Black and brown people’s wins in court—women’s wins and queer people’s wins—if you look at all of the significant civil rights cases in the last 60 years, they all sit on top of the 14th Amendment.
If you take away the 14th Amendment, we don’t have any of that. So yes, they are coming for your birth control, but it’s not just about that—they’re coming for how the 14th Amendment has been interpreted by the court.
And that ties into this whole belief system that some people have about how the Constitution is not a living document—that we got to think about what the founders thought; we got to act like no time has happened, nothing’s changed, Black people are still three-fifths of a person—that is essentially how they act. I feel like there are some people who honestly think that the amendments don’t even belong. And I just don’t think people understand that those people exist, and no, I’m not a lawyer, but I sure do study up on the law.
IG: Well, that’s the thing. It’s like, you’re not a lawyer, but you speak so intelligently about the law. It’s good to know that there are people who didn’t go to law school—who had the sense not to go to law school—but who do understand the stakes. I want someone who didn’t go to law school to explain what the stakes are so people will get it because—
LBR: They’re so high.
IG: They’re so high, and it’s not going to stop with abortion. There’s a reason abortion and trans rights and voting rights are all on the chopping block at the same time.
LBR: Exactly. And this is what I need people to understand: If you think this is just abortion and “OK, I’m in a blue state, so I’m good”—that’s cute and all, but I hope you understand that Roe sits on other cases like the birth control case [Griswold v. Connecticut]. They have never liked the fact that we have access to birth control.
IG: Exactly. And these rights haven’t been around for a long time. Griswold was 1965, Eisenstadt v. Baird was 1972—and that’s the case that said, “Now single people can also use birth control.” People seem to think that these laws or these rules have been around for years and years and years and so they’re untouchable.
LBR: Think about all of these things that we take for granted that are just normal. The fact that you can wear what you want—pants versus a dress—right?
IG: That’s equal protection. That’s the 14th Amendment.
LBR: The fact that you don’t have to wear gendered clothing without having to be stopped on the street by a police officer asking, “Are you queer?”
This is why queer history is so important because that’s exactly what part of the tension that led up to Stonewall was, is that if you didn’t have a certain number of garments on that matched your “gender,” then you get hauled off to jail. These things already existed. It’s not like this is a dark distant history. These elders walk among us. It’s not like people who weren’t allowed to vote are all people who we have to listen to on wax records that are in the Smithsonian and only relegated to handwritten diaries or something.
IG: And that’s what this campaign against the 14th Amendment is about—who gets to be seen as a full person under the law. White cis hetero men aren’t going to gut the 14th Amendment. That’s not what “they’re coming for the 14th Amendment” means. They still need the 14th Amendment to protect white kids from being discriminated against when they apply to college.
What they’re going to do is undo personhood for everyone that implementation of the 14th Amendment realized. There’s a real chance in the future that eggs and embryos have more rights than Black women do, even though they don’t care about the personhood of Black embryos.
LBR: They don’t care. If you think that they fundamentally are really absolutely obsessed with this whole notion that life begins at conception, they’re not. Most of these people do not give a fuck, and when I say people, I mean men. They do not give a fuck about that because when it comes time for them to yeet a fetus that they don’t want, they don’t care. And I said that word intentionally—they’re the first ones to pony up that money when it’s time to get rid of a pregnancy that they are not inclined to want to continue.
Let’s be clear. It was never about poor Black and brown women. It’s about getting poor white women to have more babies. They want to roll back certain kinds of women’s access to birth control, especially white women, because you can’t combat replacement theory without white women having babies.
Let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about that. People are like, well, why would they want poor Black and brown women to have more babies? They don’t.
They want Becky to have more babies. They want them girls that are in the trailer parks to have more babies. Because they’re worried about replacement theory and they have been worried about it for decades now. That’s why they’re worried about immigration right now.
IG: Yes. Thank you.
LBR: There’s too many brown people coming up in here. And the two ways that they’re trying to stop that is by, one, getting Black and brown people to get the hell out of here and go back to wherever the hell they feel like they came from. That’s why they’re trying to deport Asians. That’s why Trump was doing all of that, right?
And then the second way is to try to close the borders, right? Less Black and brown people coming up in here.
And then the third way is to try to get white women to have more babies. And white women have been off of that since the 1800s. Once white women figured out ways to not have to have white men babies, they were like … No. So please know, once they figured out they could yeet yeet, they was like, thank you. We’ll also either douche these babies away. They were not about that life. They were out here burning their vaginas with Lysol rather than have Tom’s baby.
So please know this is not new. That’s why they were trying to regulate birth control before they were trying to regulate abortion. It has nothing to do with poor immigrant women not having more babies or poor Black women having more babies. No, no, no, no. Eugenically they wanted those people to have less babies.
What they wanted was certain kinds of white women—WASP women—to have more babies, right? That has not changed. And so one way to do that is to control contraception.
IG: And that sits on the 14th Amendment, like you said. That’s why they’re coming for birth control and for the 14th Amendment.
LBR: I don’t think these people have really thought it through: How do you take stuff away? It’s one thing to never allow someone to have something. But it’s much harder to take a right away from someone.