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Staff photo by Wyatt Massey / Charlie Wysong, president of American Rights Coalition, stands outside the National Memorial for the Unborn on Vance Road on May 17, 2021. Wysong was one of the key organizers that helped close the city's last abortion clinic 28 years ago and renovated it to become a memorial and a pregnancy center.

Chattanooga's abortion clinic closed nearly 30 years ago this week, something anti-abortion organizers credit to God as they look to mobilize against Planned Parenthood with its recent hires in the city.

Charlie Wysong, president of American Rights Coalition, said he will again focus his efforts on bringing medical malpractice claims against abortion providers on behalf of women who were harmed during the procedure.

"Planned Parenthood doesn't locate anywhere without the desire to have an abortion clinic," Wysong said. "So we do not want to see an abortion clinic here, nor do we want to see an office that refers for abortions."

In March, anti-abortion advocates began organizing against Planned Parenthood, which hired a community organizer and a health educator for the city.

Tory Mills, director of community engagement for Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi, said the health educator position will help bring more comprehensive, accurate and nonjudgmental sex education to families in the region.

"It is essential that youth have the skills and education that they need, and that has been really lacking in Chattanooga," Mills said.

There is a need for low-cost, accessible health care in Chattanooga, Mills said. Planned Parenthood is investing in the region with the staff members because there is demand, even as support for abortion rights can sometimes feel like an underground movement given vocal opposition in the city.

"Planned Parenthood has always had supporters in Chattanooga," Mills said. "There are Chattanoogans that not only support Planned Parenthood, but support access to safe, legal abortion, who support comprehensive sex ed and who support all of the work that we do. This is not a new thing."

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.

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 including Wysong raised more than $300,000 in several days to buy the property, taking it over on May 17, 1993.

The clinic was converted into the National Memorial for the Unborn, which opened a year later and remains in operation. Wysong met with reporters outside the memorial on Monday.

"The impact from the abortion clinic closing has been enormous," Wysong said. "The spiritual atmosphere in Chattanooga changed when the abortion clinic closed."

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.

Wysong and other advocates are concerned about Planned Parenthood's presence in the city. While the demographics of the city have changed since the last abortion clinic closed, Wysong said he believes there is still widespread anti-abortion support.

"It's for those people who have strong beliefs about abortion, against abortion, to step up and do something," he said. "I know there are churches right now that are praying and working to see that this does not become a sanctuary for Planned Parenthood."

Greater Chattanooga Right to Life has created billboards and started an online petition against what the organization's president, Candy Clepper, described as Planned Parenthood's "devastating effects on women and children."

Mills, who grew up in Chattanooga, said celebrating the closure of the clinic on Vance Road amounts to celebrating the removal of needed health care services and education in Chattanooga. Planned Parenthood's clinics provide birth control, STD testing and cancer screenings, as well as abortion services, she said.

Having healthy and safe families requires proper education, Mills said. Planned Parenthood typically runs a peer-to-peer education program for teenagers to become educators among their friends to discuss things such as healthy relationships, STDs, body image concerns and identifying warning signs of suicide. A similar program likely will be launched in Chattanooga, Mills said.

Anti-abortion advocates received welcome news Monday morning when the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take on a case from Mississippi involving whether abortions can be banned before a fetus is able to survive outside the womb. According to reporting from the Associated Press, the case is not a direct challenge to a women's constitutional right to an abortion, but a ruling in favor of the ban could significantly weaken abortion protections.

Wysong said he thinks the United States will outlaw the kinds of legal abortions occurring today in cities surrounding Chattanooga.

"I believe that once we come to an understanding of the impact, the moral impact on our society, not just the loss of babies, not just the impact on women, but the spiritual impact on our society that abortion presents, I think we'll see it end," he said.

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

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