Hamilton County Commission meeting - May 18, 2011
Men and women, including some mothers carrying cooing babies, crowded the seats Wednesday as the nine men on the Hamilton County Commission listened to Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department staffers explain the county’s family planning program.
The staff members, all women, said the program provides education and contraception to local women. They said it does not provide money for abortions.
Becky Barnes, the health department administrator, had said this since the commission nearly terminated funding for family planning on May 4. Commissioners decided to hold off making a final decision until they received more information.
“Again, nothing to do with abortions,” Barnes told commissioners Wednesday. “I don’t want anybody to leave the room not clear on that.”
Commissioners got the message. They unanimously voted to restore a $581,700 contract for family planning services, including condoms, injections, abstinence education and the morning-after pill.
Most in the audience greeted the commission’s reversal with enthusiastic applause. Organizer Ash-Lee Henderson smiled broadly as she spoke to reporters on behalf of Chattanooga Organized for Action, which rallied in support of the program.
“It’s really wonderful,” she said. “The commission finally got it together.”
None of the commissioners this time confused the morning-after pill, which prevents implantation of a fertilized egg, with RU-486, which is used to induce abortion within the first few weeks of a pregnancy.
Barnes and other health officials said women are given the morning-after pill only after they receive a pregnancy test. And women aren’t actually pregnant until a fertilized egg attaches itself to a woman’s uterus, Health Officer Valerie Boaz explained.
“Tennessee’s attorney general has issued an opinion that pregnancy begins at the completion of the implantation in the uterus,” Boaz said. “There is an opinion that birth control that may result in the expulsion of a fertilized egg is not abortion.”
But local attorney Todd McCain and anti-abortion activist Donald O’Connor said the commission shouldn’t allow the morning-after pill to be included in the program.
McCain said conception begins when an egg is fertilized, even before it finds a comfortable place to settle in the womb.
“It’s absolutely, in its essence, human,” he said.
O’Connor accused the health department of “quackery” and said its employees were promoting deceit and half-truths regarding the morning-after pill.
Commissioner Tim Boyd said he hoped the issue demonstrated that the commission would not “rubber stamp” every issue put in front of them.
He said if Barnes had brought detailed information from the start, the controversy could have been prevented.
“I would implore department heads to come prepared to answer questions,” Boyd said.
Afterward, people on both sides of the issue felt county officials treated them unfairly.
Chris Brooks, of Chattanooga Organized for Action, said protesters were not allowed to bring signs to the meeting and said some people were denied access to the room.
McCain said he wanted to express his views about the morning-after pill before the commission voted instead of at the end of the meeting.
Commission Chairman Larry Henry said he thought everyone was treated fairly.
“The whole purpose was to gather information,” Henry said. “I think everyone got the information they needed.”
Dan Whisenhunt covers Hamilton County government for the Times Free Press. A native of Mobile, Ala., Dan earned a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Alabama. He won first place for best in-depth news coverage in the 2010 Alabama Press Association contest; the FOI-First Amendment Award in the 2007 Alabama Press Association contest; first place for best public service story in the Alabama AP Managing Editors contest in 2009 for economic coverage; and ...