A job posting from Planned Parenthood to bring a community organizer to Chattanooga is triggering concern among local anti-abortion advocates, even as the organization says it has no plans to open a clinic in the area.
The community organizer is one of two positions, along with a health educator, for which Planned Parenthood is hiring in Chattanooga, said Savannah Bearden, director of communications for Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi.
Bearden said the positions will help organize supporters of expanded reproductive health access, including what policies are being discussed and how to advocate. Planned Parenthood has not had a staff member based in Chattanooga since 2005, she said. In the years since, staff from Knoxville or Nashville helped with efforts in Chattanooga.
"East Tennessee, in general, is so integral to our efforts and we have a ton of East Tennessee supporters," Bearden said. "Our supporters in Chattanooga have voiced that they would like more of a presence. They want to be more looped into the things that we're doing."
But the possibility of a group like Planned Parenthood, which supports access to safe and legal abortions, having an increased presence in Chattanooga has those opposed to the procedure prepared to mobilize.
Greater Chattanooga Right to Life is hosting a community meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Dominic Building of the Basilica of Saints Peter & Paul to organize against Planned Parenthood. Candy Clepper, president of the group, is asking people to join the effort to "ensure that Chattanooga remains free from the abortion industry."
"With this kind of deadly agenda, it is extremely worrisome to learn that they are looking to expand their influence in our city," Clepper said in an email. "The people of Chattanooga are not interested in Planned Parenthood's extreme agenda expanding into our community."
Planned Parenthood said it does not have plans to open a clinic in Chattanooga. The city has not had an abortion clinic for nearly 30 years.
Protests and acts of civil disobedience began as soon as the city's first free-standing abortion clinic opened on Vance Road in 1975, two years after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion in its landmark Roe v. Wade decision.
Protesters chained themselves to the door of the Chattanooga Women's Clinic and held signs reading, "Women are exploited by abortion," according to newspaper photographs from the time. Anti-abortion activists found clients who had negative experiences and repeatedly sued the clinic for negligence and malpractice.
The clinic, which was renting the space, lost its location when the building's owner went bankrupt and put the property up for auction in 1993. Anti-abortion leaders raised enough money to buy the property and kicked the clinic out. The clinic was converted into the National Memorial for the Unborn, which opened a year later in 1994.
Today, the nearest abortion clinics to Chattanooga are more than 100 miles away, in either Marietta, Georgia, or Knoxville, Tennessee, making Chattanooga an "abortion desert," according to a 2018 study in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.
Despite efforts by anti-abortion groups to minimize Planned Parenthood's influence in Southeast Tennessee, groups like the Chattanooga Health Advocacy Team see the organization as an important collaborator for improving reproductive health care access for local women.
Kim Osment, spokesperson for CHAT, said there is a growing population of abortion rights advocates in Chattanooga who have largely gone unheard because of the city's history and political climate.
"There are a lot of pro-choice people in the Chattanooga area, but it is so hard to find your people, as it were, to be more outspoken about it," Osment said. " So having somebody who could collaborate with the community and help provide resources for the community and allow these kinds of resources to exist to the population at large would be super beneficial."
Clepper said an expansion of Planned Parenthood in Chattanooga would be destructive and devastating.
"Chattanooga is better off without their kind of 'outreach,'" she said.
Contact Wyatt Massey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.