Chattanooga will face even larger abortion desert if Roe v. Wade is overturned

FILE - In this Aug. 12, 2019, file photo, people wait for a Senate hearing to begin to discuss a fetal heartbeat abortion ban, or possibly something more restrictive in Nashville, Tenn. The assertion by proponents that abortion as early as six weeks into pregnancy "stops a beating heart" was arguably the stroke of political genius that helped so-called "heartbeat bills" defy constitutional concerns to become law in 12 states. None has taken effect due to court challenges, the latest being argued Thursday, April 29, 2021, in Tennessee. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

Emails to send. Coffee meetings to schedule. Zoom trainings to lead. The work of community organizing is not often glamorous. For the moments in the spotlight - leading rallies, for example - there are hours of quiet work building connections, having conversations.

Kamari Sherard began organizing for Planned Parenthood in Chattanooga about eight months ago. The announcement of her hiring sparked concern from some local political and faith leaders. Chattanooga has been without an abortion clinic for nearly 30 years and it will stay that way, they said.

In a place like Chattanooga, being comfortable enough to just talk about reproductive health openly was a barrier to overcome. Participants in one training Sherard leads say "abortion" in unison to lessen the stigma. Sherard, a 25-year-old who grew up in Hixson, had never heard of Planned Parenthood until watching "Mean Girls."

"There are just so many misrepresented people who either don't know how to get involved or don't know that we're here," Sherard said.

On Dec. 1, the Supreme Court heard the case of a Mississippi law banning abortion after 15 weeks. In its arguments before the court, those defending the Mississippi law asked the court to overturn all of its previous decisions upholding the right to abortion.

Albert Mohler, the influential evangelical leader and president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said Thursday the argument presented "some of the most important words ever spoken before the Supreme Court of the United States."

Anti-abortion advocates believe such a ruling would allow them to provide even more care for pregnant women through crisis pregnancy centers. Patricia Lindley, who helped close Chattanooga's abortion clinic in the 1990s and was a founding member of the Choices clinic, said members of the anti-abortion movement have been waiting for decades for a moment in America like this.

"We long for the day when we are not marked as a country for slaughtering the youngest members of the human race before they were born," Lindley said.

If the Supreme Court's landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade case is overturned, decisions about abortion would return to individual states. Tennessee, and 20 other states, have a variety of laws already in place that would ban or severely curtail abortion access once Roe is overturned, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Those laws protecting unborn children would leave large swaths of the nation without a nearby abortion clinic.

Chattanoogans seeking abortions already go hundreds of miles to Knoxville, Nashville or Atlanta for the procedure. In a post-Roe environment, the nearest clinic to Chattanooga may be as far away as Illinois.

Abortion rights circles have used the rallying cry of Roe being in jeopardy to gather support for decades, but the Mississippi case may be the closest the court has come to abandoning the precedent.

"We tell everybody the same thing: This is a very scary place to be," said Ashley Coffield, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi. "Every person needs to stand up and say something right now."

photo FILE - In this Aug. 12, 2019, file photo, people wait for a Senate hearing to begin to discuss a fetal heartbeat abortion ban, or possibly something more restrictive in Nashville, Tenn. The assertion by proponents that abortion as early as six weeks into pregnancy "stops a beating heart" was arguably the stroke of political genius that helped so-called "heartbeat bills" defy constitutional concerns to become law in 12 states. None has taken effect due to court challenges, the latest being argued Thursday, April 29, 2021, in Tennessee. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

Laws on the books

Abortion rates in the United States have steadily declined since the early 1980s and as of 2017 were below the rates of abortion in 1973 when the ruling came in Roe v. Wade, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

The abortion rights research organization, based in New York and Washington, D.C., fills a data void since the federal government does not require states to report such data, said Amanda Stevenson, professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder, during a panel discussion hosted last month by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The decline in abortions can be attributed to a variety of factors, such as the increase in access to contraceptives, and the largest decline in the abortion rate is among teenagers as teen pregnancy rates have declined in the past 20 years, Stevenson said.

About two-thirds of abortions in the United States occur at or before eight weeks, compared to 1.3% of abortions occurring after 20 weeks, Stevenson said.

The Mississippi law at the center of the Supreme Court case bans most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. On Dec. 1, after opening arguments, court watchers said the conservative majority Supreme Court signaled a willingness to uphold the law and overturn precedent to some degree.

"The votes are there to deliver a win to the pro-life cause and to return this decision to the states, which we believe is the right call," Will Brewer, director of government relations for Tennessee Right to Life, told the Times Free Press in October before the case was heard. "But I also think that there are justices on the court that are very mindful of political influences on the court and how that's seen by the public at large."

The majority of Americans, around 6 in 10, support abortion rights, according to a 2021 Gallup poll. The poll found 51% of Americans who identify as "pro-life" and 46% of people who are registered Republican or lean Republican support overturning Roe v. Wade.

"We in Tennessee, at Tennessee Right to Life, feel like this state has let its voice be known on this issue, and we look forward to living in a post-Roe state if, in fact, the Supreme Court makes the right call," Brewer said.

In 2019, the Tennessee legislature passed the "Human Life Protection Act" which would outlaw abortion (except if the pregnancy could cause severe damage or death to the woman) starting 30 days after any overturn of Roe v. Wade. Under the law, someone who performed or attempted to perform an abortion could face between three and 15 years in prison and fines up to $10,000.

Brewer said the state law is in place so legislative change in a post-Roe environment would not depend on the schedules of lawmakers.

"Let's say this case is decided in May. The legislature is already out for the year. So we would have to either engage in a special session or we'd have to come back the following session, January to April, in order to pass into law," Brewer said. " If Roe vs. Wade is overturned, and we prohibit abortion, that saves lives. So just think about the innumerable lives that will be saved by not having to wait for a special session or not having to wait until the next General Assembly meets the following winter."

On Dec. 1, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals announced it would rehear the case of Tennessee's law banning abortion after cardiac activity is detected. Abortion opponents have said a heartbeat can be heard around six weeks, although doctors say the heart does not form until nine weeks, so that description of the pulses is misleading. The law was blocked in September by a three-judge panel.

(READ MORE: Full circuit court to consider Tennessee's anti-abortion law)

According to the Guttmacher Institute, 21 states have pre-Roe laws in place or "trigger bans" on abortion that would go into effect if the legal precedent is overturned. North Carolina, which does not have a rule already in place, could move to end or severely curtail access to abortion, the institute reported.

The series of "trigger bans" already in place would provide a kind of double win for the anti-abortion movement - Roe overturned and abortion access quickly narrowed in conservative states.

Elizabeth Nash, principal policy associate of state issues at the Guttmacher Institute, said individuals seeking abortions would need to travel long distances to access the procedure.

"You're looking at about half the states that have the real potential to ban abortion," Nash said. "When you start talking about half the states, you're talking about essentially the South, the Plains, the Midwest, parts of the west and the mid-Atlantic. You're talking about most of the country."

photo Staff file Photo / Christy McCain, center, talks to media and others about a rumored abortion clinic in Chattanooga, as other Pro-Life Majority Coalition of Chattanooga members David Miller, Peggy Lowe, Donald O'Connor, Doug Daugherty and Patricia Lindley, from left, listen on the Hamilton County Courthouse steps.

Post-Roe landscape

Accessing abortion from Chattanooga, in a post-Roe environment, could mean traveling to Virginia or Florida. However, according to The Associated Press, legislators in Florida are considering an abortion law similar to the Texas one that went into effect Sept. 1 and banned abortion starting around six weeks, before many women know they are pregnant.

Without options in Virginia or Florida, Chattanoogans may have to travel as far as Illinois or Maryland to access abortion.

Adding these travel costs on top of the cost of an abortion, which is typically around $550, quickly creates barriers to access, Nash said. There is the monetary cost of the procedure and travel, as well as having to take off of work or find care for children.

The majority of people seeking abortions in the United States already have at least one child, said Diana Greene Foster, professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the University of California San Francisco, during the American Association for the Advancement of Science panel discussion in November.

(READ MORE: Abortion opponents mark closure of Chattanooga's only clinic 28 years ago)

Coffield pointed to the effects of the Texas law as a microcosm of what could happen across the country. As the Texas ban went into effect, abortion clinics in surrounding states were overwhelmed with demand, according to the AP.

"We've learned a lot about how difficult, truly difficult it is for patients to leave their community and their state to get health care. It is an enormous hurdle. And people need a lot of help getting where they need to go and getting the services they need," Coffield said.

Candy Clepper, president of Greater Chattanooga Right to Life, said outreach efforts with non-abortion resources will continue to be a priority for the local anti-abortion organization, even if abortion access is much more difficult in the South.

"Some states are already preparing to become abortion destinations where they will welcome abortion providers and the clients which they will target nationally," Clepper said in a statement. "Their advertising efforts will especially target women in states, like Tennessee, where abortion is prohibited. That's why our outreach efforts will be as important as ever to protect the women and children in our state."

Clepper and Brewer said even with a judicial win, the anti-abortion movement will keep some of its attention on legislation.

"I'm not going to pretend that, even if Roe is overturned, that the battle at the legislature will cease to exist," Brewer said. "I think there will continue to be conflict there. And, as we all know, politics is cyclical."

Lindley is hopeful even more women will be able to use pregnancy resource centers like Choices. The clinic has expanded from the initial operation, Lindley said, and she knows some of the babies, now adults, whose mothers she helped counsel years ago.

"As a Bible-believing, born-again Christian, all of us have just pleaded with the Lord to put an end to it," she said. "Whether He does that through the Supreme Court decision, He does that day after day in pregnancy resource centers."

A ruling from the Supreme Court on the future of abortion access in the United States is expected next summer.

Contact Wyatt Massey at or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.