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Tennessee House candidate talks to voters about her abortion • Wisconsin Examiner

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Candidates for political office often have personal reasons motivating them to run, even if those reasons don’t always end up as part of a stump speech or a talking point of the campaign platform. But when Allie Phillips knocks on the doors of strangers in Tennessee, she is leading with the story of one of the worst things that has ever happened to her — when she was forced to leave her home state to terminate a nonviable pregnancy.

For many people who have had an abortion, the intimacy of the experience and the stigma that often comes with it makes them reluctant to share, even among their closest friends and family, especially now that the procedure is illegal in 14 states. But not Phillips, even before she decided to run for office.

She has agreed to virtually any media request for an interview that has come her way over the past year, including stories about her pending lawsuit against the state of Tennessee. A Google search of her name returns more than 54,000 results, with headlines in the highest echelons of American media and abroad.

She has been through the story so many times with so many people that going door-to-door and relaying it to strangers with no idea of their political persuasions and asking them to support her candidacy was only a little bit nerve-wracking. Phillips needed 25 qualifying signatures from registered voters in her district, which includes her home city of Clarksville.

“I’m running because this time last year I was 19 weeks pregnant at my anatomy scan, when my doctor told my husband and me that it was no longer viable, and we made the very hard decision to terminate the pregnancy,” Phillips told her neighbors at each stop. “Because of Tennessee’s laws, I could not do that here, and on March 7, I had to travel out of state to receive the care that I needed.”

Tennessee has a near-total abortion ban that has been in effect since August 2022, two months after the U.S. Supreme Court issued the Dobbs decision that returned the ability to regulate abortion to individual states. The law contains an affirmative defense if an abortion is performed to preserve the pregnant person’s health or prevent the person’s death. It’s the law Phillips is suing over, along with six other Tennessee women and two physicians, to clarify that doctors can provide an abortion to pregnant patients who need one for medical reasons without fear of criminal prosecution. Similar lawsuits are still pending in Idaho and Oklahoma, with representation from the Center for Reproductive Rights. A hearing is scheduled to take place Thursday morning in Tennessee district court.

Since June 2022, the average number of abortion procedures per month in Tennessee fell from 1,205 to 44, according to a report from the Society of Family Planning. The law contains exceptions to save a pregnant patient’s life and to prevent substantial health problems, but without greater clarity in the law, few physicians are willing to risk performing the procedure with potential felony charges and up to 15 years in prison.

Phillips, who is vying for the House District 75 seat,  is one of the first candidates to run for office with her own personal story of seeking an abortion in a state where it is banned since the Dobbs decision, and she’s one of few who has ever run with such an emphasis on her own abortion story, as far as she and her campaign manager can determine. With each door knock, she and her team weren’t quite sure what kind of reaction they would get.

‘I started blaming myself immediately’ 

The story Phillips, 29, tells at the door is much simpler than the one she tells at length when given the opportunity.

She announced her pregnancy in November 2022 on the TikTok account she started two years earlier. At that time, she had about 275,000 followers that she had built largely through sharing videos about her weight loss after bariatric surgery, when she dropped close to 150 pounds in nine months. In between those videos, she danced with her daughter and made memes to the music of her favorite artist, Taylor Swift. It’s also where she announced the name she and her husband, Bryan, had chosen for their first child together —Miley Rose.

The couple brought 6-year-old daughter, Adalie, to a routine anatomy scan when Phillips was 19 weeks pregnant in February 2023. About five minutes into the scan, which examines the fetus’ internal organs, limbs and other aspects of the pregnancy to check for any developmental issues, the technician stopped and told Phillips she needed to talk to the doctor because she was seeing “some pretty serious things.”

“And of course, as soon as she says that my heart starts beating fast, I get a knot in my throat,” Phillips said.

When the doctor came in, she told Phillips the fetus was lacking amniotic fluid, which is essential to continued development, and both of the kidneys were not functional. The doctor referred Phillips to a specialist, but didn’t give her a prognosis.

During the four days before her high-risk appointment, Phillips said she googled every possible diagnosis she could find and told herself based on that research that it was fixable. But the follow-up appointment dashed those hopes. The fetus had stopped growing about a month earlier, the bladder and stomach had not formed correctly, the lungs were not developing, and only two of four chambers of the heart were working.

“And so in my mind I’m like … we can get stomach transplants, or feed her with a tube. We can get a kidney. I’m just going through all these things in my head, like, this is fixable,” Phillips said. “Lungs, I don’t know how we’re going to go about that, but I’m sure we’ll figure it out.”

But then the doctor continued the ultrasound imaging to the head.

“That’s when I felt a giant weight on my chest,” Phillips said. “Once you hit the brain and there’s something wrong with the brain, you’re done.”

The brain had failed to fully split into two hemispheres, a condition that results in live birth about 3% of the time, and of those, many die within the first year of life. There was also extra fluid present.

With all of that, the doctor told Phillips her second daughter was not compatible with life outside of the womb.

“And it was just quiet for a minute,” she said. “I didn’t look at her. My eyes were fixated on the (screen), like a million things running through my mind. … How could I have avoided this? Is it because I didn’t drink enough water? Is it because I didn’t get enough vitamins? I started blaming myself immediately.”

The doctor told her and her husband they had two options — to continue the pregnancy with risk of miscarriage, stillbirth or other complications, or terminate the pregnancy.

“She continued to say that because of Tennessee’s ban, you cannot do that here. You would have to look out of state, and I cannot offer you any resources,” Phillips said.

To avoid risking her future fertility or health, especially since she already had a daughter dependent on her, she decided termination was the right choice.

The next morning, Phillips recorded a TikTok video about the outcome of the appointment. That video has more than 3 million views and 28,000 comments. Many were supportive and kind, but thousands urged her not to “kill her baby.”

For various reasons, she chose New York City for a termination appointment the following week. Her husband had to take off work, she had to close her in-home daycare, find child care for her daughter, and somehow come up with about $5,000 for the procedure, the flights, lodging and meals. Her followers asked her to set up a GoFundMe so they could help, and they raised $8,000 — double her goal.

‘I’m more than just a one-issue candidate’ 

The day Phillips went canvassing in late February, her campaign planned to target certain houses based on voting records, but the application that campaigns use to identify those voters wasn’t working. Campaign manager Megan Lange decided they would wing it and hope for the best. The canvassing team included Phillips’ friend, Kathryn Rickmeyer, who has also had to leave the state for an abortion and is a vocal supporter of Phillips’ run for office.

Her Republican opponent for the seat, Rep. Jeff Burkhart, ran unopposed in the 2022 election. The district was newly drawn as of that year, but as far as Phillips and other Democratic operatives can tell, it is close to a 50-50 split with an edge to Republicans.

A conversation Phillips had with Burkhart a few months after her abortion was one of the driving factors behind her decision to run. She had approached him about crafting a bill to exempt fatal fetal anomalies from Tennessee’s abortion ban that would be called “Miley’s Law,” but the legislation never made it to the statehouse floor.

Burkhart’s legislative assistant told States Newsroom he was not accepting any requests for interviews.

During the two-hour meeting, which Phillips recorded, she said Burkhart told her he thought it was just first pregnancies that could go wrong, and he would encourage his daughter to continue a nonviable pregnancy even if her health was at risk rather than see her get an abortion.

Before that, she’d had no political ambitions. But several weeks later, she decided to take the leap, not just because of Burkhart.

“The idea to run was to turn my pain into purpose, to turn my tragedy into policy, so nobody else has to experience it,” she said. “But I’m more than a one-issue candidate, because Tennessee is more than a one-issue state. We have a lot of problems that need to be fixed.”

It hasn’t been easy just five months in. The family’s combined income is low enough that Phillips has said publicly she’s had months where she has to choose between paying the mortgage and buying groceries. She lost one daycare client because she was closed down for too many days for campaign-related events and interviews. It’s a talking point she uses while canvassing as well — that her opponent, a real estate developer, was able to loan his campaign $110,000.

“I’ve never seen that much money in my life,” she says to her neighbors.

Face-to-face interactions are more powerful than rhetoric, historian says 

Over the course of the afternoon, few people who answered the door reacted to Phillips’ story of needing an abortion in either a negative or positive way.

Gillian Frank, a professor and historian who has studied reproductive rights history extensively, told States Newsroom there is a long history of women telling their abortion stories after they’ve been elected, but fewer who have campaigned on their own personal story.

Sen. Lorraine Beebe, a Republican in Michigan’s state legislature, spoke of the abortion she’d had during a debate on a bill to loosen restrictions on the procedure in 1969, four years before Roe was decided. The bill failed, and while her story gained national attention, she lost her seat in the next election, her house was fire-bombed, and her tires were slashed.

In the decades that have followed, entire organizations and activist groups have dedicated their missions to sharing abortion stories, such as Shout Your Abortion and We Testify. Some Democratic legislators have recently told their own stories as well, including Sen. Eva Burch in Arizona, who spoke about her experience being forced to hear about adoption and foster care and undergo a transvaginal ultrasound for a nonviable pregnancy before she could be granted an abortion, laws that were passed by state GOP lawmakers. Only one of the chamber’s 16 Republicans remained on the floor during Burch’s speech.

Frank said while Democrats have included reproductive rights as part of the party platform for decades, the support has often not been full throated or explicit, including from President Joe Biden, a Catholic whom activists have complained is too tepid in his support for abortion access.

Phillips’ experience of door-knocking, as relayed to him by States Newsroom, is what Frank says he would expect as a person’s standard reaction to someone standing in front of them sharing their story.

“‘I’m sorry that happened to you’ is just a fairly scripted, polite way to respond,” Frank said. “The lack of condemnation itself is interesting, but the default in an awkward situation is to offer a nicety and avoid discomfort.”

But there is a difference, he said, in a face-to-face conversation versus interacting with the anti-abortion rhetoric that has played out in campaigns and at protests and rallies over the years, especially since most Americans support some form of access to abortion and a right to privacy.

“The anti-abortion minority is both vocal and dramatic and prone to highly emotional displays, and that sort of hyped-up language is not where most people live their lives,” Frank said. “When we have these push polls and campaigning issues, dramatic commercials and reductionist devices, it’s a different experience than someone saying, ‘This is my story, I’m right here telling it to you.’”

Unregistered voter still thought Roe was intact 

As of November 2022, the U.S. Census Bureau showed about 67% of Tennessee residents are registered voters, but that number is lower in Montgomery County, where about 127,000 residents were registered. According to state population estimates for 2023, that would be about 55%.

That seemed to ring true in Phillips’ neighborhood, where many of those who answered the door were receptive to her story but were not registered to vote and therefore couldn’t sign her petition. Some politely took her card and listened, but didn’t comment or agree to sign. One said he didn’t care if she was his neighbor and shut the door in her face.

A woman who hasn’t been a registered voter for many years was unaware that Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that made abortion access a constitutional right in 1973, was no more. She told Phillips she was sorry about her baby, and agreed that Phillips should have been able to terminate her pregnancy in Tennessee.

Two neighbors, including the one across the street who displays a large “Trump 2024” flag on his front step, signed as well, saying they supported her decision to run even if they didn’t agree politically.

As part of her pitch, Phillips mentions she’s committed to making sure public schools are fully funded and talks about her support for Medicaid expansion, infrastructure and gun safety. One woman did not comment on the abortion story but asked if Phillips was in favor of charter schools. When she said no, the voter agreed to sign. Another man said he would sign based on her abortion story alone, but he had to make sure she was still in favor of the Second Amendment when she started talking about gun safety.

Her last signatures of the day, and the ones that helped her hit her goal, were from three voters who were largely concerned about growth in the community and having their voices heard at the local level.

A woman next door came out of her house as Phillips was leaving and offered deep sympathy for her experience. She said God would give her another baby.

“We aren’t sure about trying again while the laws are the way they are, because we don’t know what my body can handle,” Phillips told her.

‘She went on her own’ 

The clinic in New York City only allowed the patient inside for the procedure, so Phillips went to the initial appointment while Bryan stayed at the hotel. She was looking forward to seeing Miley one last time before saying goodbye.

But when the ultrasound began, instead of hearing the quick thud of a heartbeat and seeing a wriggling form on the screen, there was only silence.

“I was like, ‘Is there not a heartbeat?’ and she slowly started to shake her head,” Phillips said. “And it just hit me like a train.”

No matter how many dozens of times she’s told the story, Phillips always starts to cry when she talks about telling her mom that Miley was already gone by the time of the ultrasound.

“(She said) I think this is the best gift Miley could have given you, because you were going to New York with so much guilt, and so much heartache, you were blaming yourself, you had all these ‘what ifs’ you were dealing with,” Phillips said. “She went on her own, so you didn’t have to make that choice.”

On her mantle now sits a tiny pink urn containing Miley’s ashes, onesies and binkies purchased for a full-term baby, and framed tiny footprints. Everyday, she plays the recording of Miley’s heartbeat inside a stuffed bunny.

‘I will just fight fire with fire’ 

As of March 26, Phillips has qualified to appear on the Aug. 1 primary ballot in Tennessee. So far, she has no Democratic opponents.

Since the canvassing in February, Phillips has spoken before the U.S. Senate about her experience, and she visited the White House on March 18 as part of a Women’s History Month event with Vice President Kamala Harris.

Win or lose in November, Phillips feels like she has already made a difference by helping others who have been through similar experiences feel less alone and more empowered to work for change. Telling her story over and over again has its challenges, but they have been outweighed by the positives, including keeping the promise she made to Miley that she wouldn’t let her name die with her. Before she was running for a legislative seat, Phillips said she told her story to share the pain and hurt that it caused, but she shares it now as an example of why she thinks a nationwide 15- or 16-week ban on abortion is a bad policy, because she was 19 weeks before she found out she would need to terminate.

“Part of me doesn’t like politicizing my story,” she said. “I feel like I’m using my life for a political purpose. But unfortunately, our government has made our wombs a political topic. So I will just fight fire with fire at this point and use their own ammunition against them, in hopes that I win the battle at the end.”

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originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2024%2F04%2F02%2Fturning-pain-into-purpose-tennessee-house-candidate-talks-to-voters-about-her-abortion%2F by Kelcie Moseley-Morris

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