Abortion Services Cease in Knoxville
Supporters of women’s rights take to the streets and local officials react to the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade.
by jesse fox mayshark • June 27, 2022
Marchers for abortion rights on Gay Street Friday evening.
On Friday afternoon, the Knoxville Center for Reproductive Health stopped providing abortions, on the expectation that the medical procedure will become a state felony as soon as this morning.
Providing an abortion will become a felony in Tennessee as laws take effect.
“I had a couple who stood at my door and begged me to help them, and begged me to give her an abortion,” Dr. Aaron Campbell, the center’s medical director, said Friday evening, at a rally for abortion rights in Krutch Park. “And all I could say was, ‘I can't, it's not legal’ — or at least not legal enough.”
After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier on Friday that there is no constitutional right to abortion, the clinic’s attorneys advised the staff to halt all abortion services. KCRH has served Knoxville and the surrounding region since 1975.
Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery said in a news conference Friday afternoon that his office would immediately file to have injunctions lifted against restrictions on abortion that the state Legislature has passed in recent years. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals could grant that request today, which would immediately make abortion illegal after the sixth week of gestation.
An even stricter act — Tennessee’s “trigger law” — is set to come into effect 30 days after the Supreme Court’s decision. It will make abortion illegal essentially from the moment an egg is fertilized. It allows doctors to perform abortions only “to prevent the death of the pregnant woman or to prevent serious risk of substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman.” But they would have to justify their decisions to legal authorities.
With KCRH shut down and abortion already no longer available in Knoxville, both supporters and opponents of abortion rights made clear Friday and over the weekend that they are gearing up for the next steps in the decades-long nationwide fight over the issue. Sunday afternoon, another march protesting the criminalization of abortion brought a large crowd downtown.
Outrage and Determination
Several hundred protesters turned out Friday evening for the Krutch Park rally, which was promoted by the Women’s March Coalition of East Tennessee. It was a diverse crowd with a pronounced younger skew. Some carried signs with handwritten slogans like “My Body My Choice” and “Keep your theocracy out of my democracy.” Others waved “Bans Off Our Bodies” placards from Planned Parenthood.
Activist Tory Mills, speaking through a megaphone, led the group in some expressions of unity and anger — including a collective primal scream — before listing concrete steps for activists to take.
Those included donating to organizations like Mountain Access Brigade, which provides remote support from trained abortion doulas for people using abortion medication at home; spreading awareness of online resources like abortionfinder.org, a website that tells people where and how they can most easily obtain abortion services; and, of course, getting engaged and involved with politics at all levels.
“This fight we are entering into right now, it’s going to be a 20- to 30-year effort,” said Mills, who until recently was the director of community engagement for Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi.
Campbell also spoke at the rally. He took over as medical director at KCRH just a year ago, following in the footsteps of his father, who held the same position for decades.
“Now is the time to fight,” Campbell told the crowd. “I may not be able to do abortions here, but I will keep doing abortions. Nothing will stop me — except maybe a bullet.”
At least 11 abortion doctors and clinic staff have been murdered since abortion was first established as a constitutional right in the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, which the Supreme Court overturned on Friday. More than 200 abortion clinics have been bombed or burned, incliuding the arson destruction of the Knoxville Planned Parenthood office last December. (Nobody has been charged in that case.)
In an interview after the rally, Campbell said he will serve as needed in clinics in states where abortion is still legal. “I still have my Pennsylvania license, and I just applied for North Carolina and New Mexico,” he said. “So I plan to travel around.”
Several Democratic candidates attended the rally, along with state Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville. On hand were Dr. Jason Martin, who is running for governor; county mayor candidate Debbie Helsley; congressional candidate Mark Harmon; Amanda Collins, who is running against state Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Farragut; school board candidate Katherine Bike; and district attorney general candidate Jackson Fenner.
“I’ve got three smart daughters at home,” Martin, one of three Democrats on the Aug. 4 statewide primary ballot, told the crowd. “Their rights were taken away today like many of your rights were. It’s not going to change unless we seize political power in this state.”
Fenner, repeating a vow he made earlier in the week, said if he is elected, “I will not prosecute any medical providers or any person seeking an abortion in Knox County.”
Davidson County District Attorney Glenn Funk has promised the same in Nashville. But there are already proposals circulating in other states to bypass local prosecutors who refuse to enforce abortion laws. Abortion-rights supporters expect new proposals in the Tennessee Legislature next year to penalize people who enable abortions for state residents.
Range of Reactions
Other officials reacted along predictable partisan lines, with Republicans celebrating the court’s ruling.
“Roe v. Wade has been overturned!,” Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs tweeted. “This clears the way for states like TN to pass stronger protections for the unborn, and is an answer to a prayer for so many.”
“Incredible!” Zachary exulted. “This will save, literally, millions of lives. Praise the lord!”
Gov. Bill Lee tweeted, “Today’s landmark Supreme Court decision marks the beginning of a hopeful chapter for our country. After years of heartfelt prayer & thoughtful policy, America has a historic opportunity to support women, children & strong families while reconciling the pain & loss caused by Roe.”
Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon, a Democrat, had an opposite take. “Today’s Supreme Court decision dangerously undermines women’s access to basic health care,” she posted. “It’s a devastating blow to equality, justice and safety.”
Johnson, speaking at Friday’s rally, excoriated the Republican supermajority in the Legislature for the abortion restrictions about to take effect.
“I work with a bunch of folks who do not care about women,” Johnson said. “They don't care about the average Tennessee family. I work with people who will give more rights to a violent rapist than a woman who is a victim of a violent rapist.”
Tennessee Right to Life, the state’s most prominent anti-abortion group, hailed the decision.
“This is a historic moment that we have been fighting for and working toward since our organization was founded in the wake of Roe,” said Stacy Dunn, president of Tennessee Right to Life and wife of former Knoxville state Rep. Bill Dunn. “This is a victory for democracy. For the first time in almost 50 years, the voters and their elected representatives will have control over this issue rather than unelected judges, and we applaud that.”
For Campbell, who has spent the past year seeing patients from across East Tennessee as well as Georgia, North Carolina and Kentucky, the loss of KCRH means life is going to get harder for people already facing difficult circumstances.
“For some people, it could mean the world,” he said. “We have scientific data to say that people who are denied an abortion that they want have worse long-term physical health, worse long-term mental health and worse long-term financial stability.”