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Fencing is seen outside the Supreme Court building Friday, June 24, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Chattanooga hasn't had an abortion clinic for almost 30 years, meaning women have gone without or made the trek to places like Atlanta, Nashville or Knoxville to terminate a pregnancy — all of which are roughly two hours away by car.

With the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that in 1973 solidified protections for abortion rights, Tennessee and Georgia are poised to implement bans on abortion.

For Charlie Wysong, a local anti-abortion activist who fought fiercely to shutter Chattanooga's only clinic in 1993, Friday's ruling is the culmination of almost 50 years of prayer.

"Abortion has been the greatest moral injustice in the history of the world," he told the Times Free Press by phone Friday, "and I might just say it this way: Roe v. Wade is the greatest moral injustice in the history of ... mankind."

For Chattanooga women, it likely means their already limited access to abortion services will grow even more so.

"It will absolutely decrease accessibility to abortion and other reproductive health (services) that people require," Kim Osment, who helps lead the Chattanooga Health Advocacy Team, said in an interview.

The group serves as a source of information and support for women hoping to terminate a pregnancy.

Along with a 2020 fetal heartbeat bill that has been up to this point ensnared in federal court, Tennessee has a trigger law that goes into effect 30 days after Roe v. Wade is overturned. Once that occurs, Illinois, North Carolina, Virginia and the District of Columbia would be among the closest places women could go to seek an abortion.

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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. The facility once housed an abortion clinic.

According to The Washington Post, almost every state bordering Tennessee either has an abortion ban triggered by the repeal of Roe v. Wade or has a high likelihood of passing an abortion ban within weeks or months of the Supreme Court's decision. Illinois has abortion protections in place, and neither North Carolina nor Virginia have outright banned it.

Nina Gurak, the policy director for Healthy & Free Tennessee, told the Times Free Press in a phone interview Friday that the Supreme Court's decision will be devastating for access.

Acquiring child care and paying for the cost of travel can be barriers. Pregnant women may also need to find lodging in states that have a waiting period, Gurak said, or miss work, which means they could risk losing their job.

"It's going to be really tough to get folks to clinics," she said.

Women can use medications called mifepristone and misoprostol to terminate a pregnancy, which are safe and effective for pregnancies of less than 11 weeks.

Gurak said Tennessee does also have three state-based funds that provide financial assistance or practical support for women seeking an abortion, including Abortion Care for Tennessee and Mountain Access Brigade. Additionally, there's a group called ARC Southeast that serves Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina and Florida.

Each fund is a little different, Gurak said. Some provide money directly to clinics to help women pay for procedures, and others may offer transportation.

"WE DON'T DO THOSE"

Now approaching her third year at the City University of New York School of Law, Alice Gilmore was heavily involved in activism surrounding reproductive rights in Chattanooga between 2018 and 2020.

Through an organization she formed called Make Noise 423, she hosted a storytelling event designed to highlight and destigmatize the personal complexities behind abortion. Gilmore herself had an abortion in 2015.

"I had it when I was in a very abusive relationship with someone," Gilmore told the Chattanooga Times Free Press in a phone interview Friday. "So the abortion for me saved my life, and I definitely would not be in law school if I hadn't had an abortion."

Although she was living in New York at the time, where she had been pursuing her undergraduate degree, Gilmore's health insurance was in Tennessee.

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Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Lisa Rivera waves a "My body, my choice" flag in Coolidge Park on Friday to protest the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. The Chattanooga Health Advocacy Team organized the rally.

"I'm the only one who knows at this point so I'm freaking out," she recalls. "I start calling doctors' offices in Chattanooga and every single one is like, 'No, honey, sorry we don't do those, no, no, no, no.' So that's how I learned that there was no way I was going to get an abortion in Chattanooga."

Gilmore said he was lucky to be able to find a Planned Parenthood facility in New York. She also managed to receive financial assistance from a nonprofit organization.

"If I had been in Chattanooga in the same position at the same time ... it wouldn't have been possible at all because I definitely would've had to travel multiple times," she said.

MEMORIAL FOR THE UNBORN

Chattanooga's first free-standing abortion clinic opened on Vance Road in 1975, two years after the Supreme Court legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade. 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.

A bidding war began, and anti-abortion leaders, including activist Charlie Wysong, raised more than $300,000 in several days to buy the property.

They took it over on May 17, 1993, and the building now houses the National Memorial for the Unborn.

Before it closed, Wysong said he organized daily protests outside Chattanooga's clinic on Vance Road. Protesters tried to talk to the pregnant women who visited the building and give them literature, he said. Their appeals typically occurred in the short time it took for patients to walk from the car to the door.

"You had 15 seconds to say whatever you were going to say," he said. "And I said, 'Could I give you some literature before you go in there?' If they kept walking I said, 'They will not tell you the truth. It is a baby, it is painful to you and you will have problems the rest of your life.' If they kept on walking, I said, 'God said thou shalt not kill, and you're violating God's laws here.'"

Wysong said "scores of teenagers" eventually joined the protests outside the clinic, which deterred peers from visiting the building. They also held signs showing babies in a womb or graphic images of aborted fetuses.

With the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, Wysong said there are still resources available in the form of local churches and crisis pregnancy centers, including one called Choices in Chattanooga.

Many offer free pregnancy testing, counseling for couples, parenting classes, job training as well as clothes and diapers, he said. They can also connect women with adoption services and strive to make it as easy as possible for a woman to carry a baby to term, Wysong said.

"They'll do most anything to help them," Wysong said. "Before or after the baby is born. It is a very close relationship, very kind."

Osment said that if society really wants to prevent abortions, it needs to address the systemic reasons why women seek them out in the first place rather than referring them to a crisis pregnancy center. Low wages and expensive health care are two of them.

"You need to make sure people earn a living wage so they can afford to keep their kids," she said. "That's why so many kids end up in adoption — not necessarily because they're unwanted but because (parents) can't afford them."

There's always a reason why a woman chooses to have an abortion, she said.

"If they started listening to why, maybe they could turn their efforts into those problems instead of picketing outside of clinics where people are just getting health care," she said.

Wysong, meanwhile, said he and his peers have worked hard to see this day come.

"But I would really say this is something God did," he said. "Not us. So I would point up to heaven and say, 'Thank you, Lord.'"

Contact David Floyd at dfloyd@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @flavid_doyd.

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