With battle lines drawn, Chattanooga abortion activists talk strategy, personal stories

Staff photos by Andrew Schwartz/ Greater Chattanooga Right to Life President Candy Clepper, left, and Chattanooga Health Advocacy Team founding member Shannon Hardaway are shown in this composite photo.

Anti-abortion activist Candy Clepper grew up in Central City, a small Kentucky town memorialized in the John Prine song, "Paradise."

Clepper said she was saved as a child at church camp. Her parents divorced when she was a child; her dad was an alcoholic, she said, but eventually went sober and dedicated himself to helping addicts through a Christian recovery program -- taking on a passion in his work that she feels mirrors her own today.

Through her teen years, the abortion question was not on her mind, she said.

Years after moving to Chattanooga, she became an activist just before Tennessee voters amended the state constitution to make clear that it conferred no right to an abortion. Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated constitutional protections for the procedure at the federal level, prompting a state law to kick in banning abortions with practically no exemptions. Now, Clepper is pushing to keep it that way.

Polls show most Tennesseans oppose the state law, which is among the strictest in the nation. But Greater Chattanooga Right to Life events such as an anti-abortion march planned for Coolidge Park on Saturday tend, Clepper said, to be geared toward the anti-abortion base.

"To me, it is the moral stain on America," she said of the procedure in an interview Thursday. "It is the Holocaust of our generation."


Shannon Hardaway, who spoke of her own abortion experiences at the Chattanooga Women's March last weekend, grew up in Chattanooga and said she knows many people like Clepper who believe that abortion is murder.

"I cannot change their minds, " she said in an interview Thursday. "I will not attempt to change their minds. But that is not what medical science supports.

  photo  Staff photo by Andrew Schwartz / Chattanooga Health Advocacy Team founding member Shannon Hardaway

"It may be that your religion is anti-abortion," she went on, "but that's not everybody's religion. We're built on a separation of church and state in our country. And so if a person wants a medical procedure, they should be able to legally obtain that medical procedure."

Tennessee's abortion ban has no exceptions. Although doctors criminally charged with performing the procedure may offer as a defense that it was necessary to protect the life of the mother, the law places the burden of proof on the physician, not on prosecutors like most crimes.

Blowback has led some Tennessee lawmakers, such as state Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, to seek to add exemptions for rape and incest and more clearly protect doctors. Hardaway said she met Hakeem at the Women's March.

"He has his heart in a very good place," she said -- and noted that he was inspired by reports of a Chattanooga woman sent by ambulance to North Carolina to receive an abortion. She sees activism as a marathon, and Hakeem's bill as diplomatic in a state with a stronger anti-abortion sentiment than most of the country.

"I understand exactly where it's coming from," she said. "But it's not the end result that we want."

Ultimately she and the Chattanooga Health Advocacy Team, of which she is a founding member, believe in abortion without exemptions and restrictions, particularly given that in practice seemingly moderate exemptions can make getting an abortion prohibitively difficult, she said.

Hardaway said the group's core mission has always been to provide a space for abortion rights advocates to discuss abortion, which is often stigmatized. For example, Hardaway has received two abortions, and in anticipation of the second one, she said her discussions with her partner centered on her concerns that the act was shameful.

"Am I being irresponsible," she said she wondered, "and would I be a terrible person if I do this twice?"

She said her preoccupations were less a meditation on abortion in itself than the social messaging around sexuality -- the idea that, as she said one anti-abortion protester yelled at her during the Women's March, she should have kept her legs closed.

She said the Health Advocacy Team, which has a relationship with Planned Parenthood -- an institution Chattanooga has long been without -- has of late decided to focus its energies less on marches and public demonstrations than on the state legislature.

A few years ago, Hardaway said she went to Nashville for Planned Parenthood Lobby Day. And the organizer there told her she was the first person who had come up from Chattanooga in years.

She hopes to coax Chattanoogans to Nashville for two lobby days in the coming weeks. The Health Advocacy Team is seeking funding for a bus, so everyone can roll up to the Capitol together, Hardaway said.


Clepper knows many see her views as draconian, but she said she feels no shame over it.

"I have a lot of pro-life shirts that I wear," she said, "and I'll be honest, when I put them on and I'm going to be coming downtown, I have a second thought like, 'Will somebody shoot me?' But I wear 'em."

  photo  Staff photo by Andrew Schwartz / Greater Chattanooga Right to Life President Candy Clepper

Clepper came to Chattanooga in the late 1990s for work. She was about 30 at the time, recently divorced, had sworn off men and knew few people here, she said.

She tried some churches before ending up at Central Baptist Church of Hixson -- later renamed Abba's House. She settled into a community there and played volleyball in a recreational league. She met her husband at a gym connected to their work, and they moved to Marion County. Today, they attend Kimball Baptist Church, she said.

Though she believes her convictions are in line with her faith, she's not sure why she was drawn to the anti-abortion cause. She has no abortion in her past, she said. She doesn't have children. Still, sensing the issue's importance, she found herself poking around on the Tennessee Right to Life website, and amid the 2014 constitutional amendment campaign, she was enlisted -- reluctantly given her limited time, she said -- to become the group's Marion County coordinator.

In the coming years, the group asked more of her, she said. The state organization long lacked a chapter in Chattanooga, she said, and pushed her to spearhead one. She was wary, she said, but ultimately decided God was leading her to the role. Around 2018, she and a few others got together with Tennessee Right to Life leaders at Food Works in Chattanooga, she said. Leader handbooks were distributed. They made a social media account, a periodic time and place for meetings and thus the group was born, she said.

Today Greater Chattanooga Right to Life maintains a core group that comes to meetings and organizes. They put up billboards, lobby legislators and plan events like Saturday's march, as they work to defend a law that they see as morally righteous, if not universally embraced.

"We have our work cut out for us, to keep it intact, as is," Clepper said. "It is doing exactly what it's designed to do."


— Chattanooga March for Life will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday at Coolidge Park.

— View photos of last weekend’s Women’s March at timesfreepress.com/womensmarch.

Contact Andrew Schwartz at aschwartz@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6431.