What the next generation of anti-abortion activists thinks of the movement

Staff photo by Wyatt Massey / Darien Barrett, 18, stands in the Bluff View neighborhood on July 18.


Led by recent shifts in the Supreme Court, abortion access is again in the crosshairs of politicians and states across the country. Activists on both sides of the issue are fighting for what they believe in - some to remove access, others to preserve it. This article is part of a package highlighting the voices of young, abortion-rights and anti-abortion activists in the Chattanooga area. Click here to read about young, abortion-rights activists for the other side of the ongoing movement.

Darien Barrett was a pre-teen when the thought first occurred to her.

She had just learned about abortion and had never thought someone would consider terminating a pregnancy, she said. When she learned the majority of women who get an abortion are unmarried, Barrett's feeling deepened, she said. Barrett's mother was unmarried when she was born.

"It hit me that I could've been one of the babies that was killed," she said. "That's really when I got [the conviction] to do something."

Barrett, 18, began her advocacy and education in the anti-abortion movement with her church, First Baptist Church in South Pittsburg, Tennessee. She wanted to be a voice for those who did not have one, unborn children, and for the elderly, who are often overlooked.

Before she was old enough to cast a ballot, Barrett was active in her community to support legislation. She talked with friends and family who had doubts or were not involved in the anti-abortion movement.

Her work toward ending all abortions continues today.

"I think we're starting to move in the right direction, but I personally believe that if people stop doing things to help the anti-abortion movement, it's going to start going back in the other direction," she said. A lot of the problems with the issue today is people have had a problem with abortion and didn't say anything. And that's not the right approach."

Barrett is among the young leaders of the local anti-abortion movement. How the movement progresses will depend on the choices of young advocates like her who are inheriting a campaign with considerable momentum.

Advocacy by votes and letters

Similar to other Southern states, anti-abortion leaders in Southeast Tennessee have seen considerable wins in limiting abortion access after the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion.

In 1993, Chattanooga's abortion clinic closed and was bought by an anti-abortion group that converted it into a pregnancy center offering parenting classes, testing and other pregnancy resources that are not abortions.

Statewide, the picture is much the same. According to the advocacy group NARAL Pro-Choice America, nearly two-thirds of women in Tennessee live in counties that don't have an abortion clinic. The group defines the state's reproductive rights as "severely restricted." In April, the state Legislature passed a bill that would revert the state's abortion laws to mirror those before the Roe v. Wade decision.

More than 10 states have passed similar and even more restrictive abortion measures since Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed, likely setting up a battle on the legality of abortion in the conservative-majority court. The laws passed include Georgia restricting abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected and Alabama making abortions a felony with a conviction bringing up to 99 years in prison.

Advocating for a Tennessee constitutional amendment passed in 2014 to strengthen legislative powers on abortion was one of Barrett's first works of advocacy, she said.

At the time she was too young to vote but spoke with voters about the issues nonetheless. She preferred to meet one on one with people, which makes listening easier and has more influence than talking to a big group, she said.

photo Staff photo by Wyatt Massey / Bryan Field, 26, stands on East 11th Street in Chattanooga on July 24.

Legislation that worked against the anti-abortion movement spurred Bryan Field to become an advocate. The 27-year-old software developer was disturbed in January when New York passed the Reproductive Health Act, which legalized abortion at any period during a pregnancy.

Field is driven by his faith. For the United States to be blessed by God, the nation must do what is right in banning abortion, he said. He wants a constitutional amendment barring the medical practice and sees letter writing as a way to push the idea since the passage of the last amendment was fueled by letters.

This year, Field launched July 2 Life, an online campaign to motivate advocates to send letters each year on July 2 to their representatives in Congress to support anti-abortion legislation, such as a bill that defines life at conception.

Letter writing organizes advocates, Field said, because it requires people to agree on a message. The campaign is built to appeal to various levels of dedication in the anti-abortion movement and is easier than attending the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., he said.

"I've always been pro-life, but I never saw a good way to get involved," Field said. " My favorite thing about this project is that it appeals to pro-life people who haven't taken that first step."

Field's goal is to send 3 million letters each year. This year on July 2, the website helped send nearly 400 letters, though the mail can be sent anytime throughout the month, he said. Field wants the campaign to be an annual event people look forward to, like the March for Life, he said. Letter writing should become part of the anti-abortion civic duty, he said.

"It only takes five minutes and one stamp," he said.

Resources, not protest signs

Avery Hisscock's first interaction with the anti-abortion movement was not positive. She was at a rally in high school and heard someone talk about confronting women at abortion clinics.

Hisscock was already anti-abortion but thought that kind of violent rhetoric and the use of graphic images was not helpful. The anti-abortion movement requires a more gentle approach, she said.

"I understood a lot of the criticisms that came out to the pro-life movement," she said. "There was a criticism that they really just care about abortion and they really just care about [being] pro-birth - just having babies be born - and after that there really aren't a lot of resources. And that really bothered me."

When Hisscock enrolled at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and began interacting with women with unplanned pregnancies, she realized just how little information about resources was available. Her advocacy would not focus on protests and yelling back and forth. There are enough people doing that, she said. Instead, the 23-year-old focused her efforts on empowering pregnant women with information.

photo Staff photo by Wyatt Massey / Avery Hisscock, 23, plays with her 8-month-old daughter in their home on July 19.

"Sometimes the pro-life movement focuses so much on babies and 'when does life begin?' and 'abortion is wrong' and all of these things, and we forget that women are in a very vulnerable position when they're pregnant," Hisscock said. "There's a lot of fear. There's a lot of anxiety. If they don't know about resources that are available, it can be a very, very difficult time in a woman's life."

Hisscock helped found a Students for Life chapter at the university in 2016. The group's first steps were compiling all of the area resources into a binder. If women needed help finding health insurance, the group could help. If women needed housing, they could make referrals, Hisscock said.

Many people are unaware of how difficult unplanned pregnancies are for women, Hisscock said. Women can feel alone and rejected. Their experiences are rarely shared, she said.

"No one wants to harm their child," she said. "Everyone wants to do what they think is best, and I think women sometimes feel that they're in an impossible situation and they don't know what resources are out there and available and they haven't seen the community step up before in ways that would make them feel comfortable enough to bring a child into the world."

Hisscock graduated in 2017 but the campus chapter continues to be a resource for pregnant women. Caelan Shurina, 20, continues the work as a UTC student, member of the Students for Life chapter and mother of a 2-month-old girl. She sees her own balance of being a student and mother as an example for others, Shurina said.

Many people support the anti-abortion movement but do not know where to direct their efforts, Shurina said. Promoting resources is one outlet, especially for people who do not want to publicly protest. Recent legislative changes are creating more conversations about abortion, but Shurina said she wishes there was more work being done.

"I'd love if it spurred more people to action," she said. "We could fix this. It's possible. It's within our realm."

photo Staff photo by Wyatt Massey / Jacob Price, 18, stands near East Brainerd Road on July 26.

Appealing to the next generation

In April, Jacob Price leaned into his years of experience in oratory and debate team to become a finalist in a statewide anti-abortion speech contest. The contest was the 18-year-old's first explicitly public act in support of anti-abortion issues, he said.

Price, who attends UTC in the fall, said he is still determining what he can contribute to the movement however he is needed.

The people of Price's generation are primed to be social activists, as seen in the nationwide school walkouts related to gun violence, he said. They know how to organize online and craft messages that connect with young people. The more older anti-abortion leaders can show students how to get involved in activism, the better, especially at a time when the movement is growing in awareness and support, Price said.

"My generation across the board, across political ideologies, is more suited for that, just naturally, to get engaged," Price said.

Young people will play an important role in working to end political and social support for abortion, and Abigail Cochran said the movement has a persuasive appeal for the youngest group of voters.

photo Photo contributed by Abigail Cochran

The appeal is a two-part logical conclusion. The first part is that intentionally killing a human is wrong. The second part is that abortion kills humans and, therefore, abortion is wrong. This is logical, Cochran said, and millennials do not like logical inconsistencies, which the pro-abortion position presents.

Even if the movement is in the social minority, the logic stands and social change has always been created by a "committed minority," Cochran said.

"It doesn't really matter whether we're in the minority or in the majority," she said. " You hear differing statistics [about support] but it really doesn't matter because the apparent logical conclusion of our two premises is that abortion is wrong."

The 24-year-old plans to make a career in advocating for the end of all abortions. She has already established the Northwest Georgia Right to Life chapter and is working as an intern at the Knoxville office of the Center for Bioethical Reform.

Cochran's hope as an advocate is to work herself out of a job.

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Find him on Twitter at @News4Mass.