Parishioners react to Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade
By The East Tennessee Catholic
Catholic congregations and pro-life supporters throughout East Tennessee are rejoicing following a June 24 U.S. Supreme Court decision that reversed nearly 50 years of government-mandated abortions in every state.
In an opinion agreed upon by five Supreme Court justices, all five of whom are or have been Catholic, and opposed by four, two of whom are Catholic, the high court ruled that there is no constitutional right to abortion in the United States despite what a majority of justices decided in 1973 in the landmark Roe v. Wade case.
Diocese of Knoxville churches responded with prayer services, prayers of thanksgiving, rosaries, and adoration in faithful response to the momentous ruling.
The decision, based on the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case, effectively undoes the legal precedent for abortion established in Roe and essentially upheld in 1992 in the case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey. The Supreme Court in Roe and Casey decided there is a constitutional right to an abortion in the United States.
The impact on abortion in East Tennessee was almost immediate. Knoxville’s only remaining abortion facility, the Knoxville Center for Reproductive Health, has on its website a poster that says, “Important Notice. Due to the Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, we will be suspending all abortion services at Knoxville Center for Reproductive Health (KCRH) while we assess the continued legality of abortion in Tennessee. All abortion appointments will be canceled until further notice. . . .”
Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi announced June 28 it is suspending abortions in Tennessee. An abortion facility in Bristol, Tenn., facing the Supreme Court’s decision and one of just two abortion facilities currently operating in East Tennessee, announced after the Supreme Court decision that it is instead opening an abortion location across the state line in Bristol, Va.
Before the Roe reversal, two abortion facilities operated in Knoxville, although one burned down on Dec. 31. Besides the Bristol operation, there are two in Nashville and three in Memphis. There is no abortion facility in Chattanooga.
Refusing to accept Roe v. Wade
Tennessee Right to Life, a statewide organization that has promoted the sanctity of life “from conception to natural death in all ages and stages” since shortly after the 1973 Roe ruling, received news of the historic reversal with jubilation and relief.
In a press conference held by Tennessee Right to Life immediately after the court handed down its opinion, Stacy Dunn, president of the nonprofit association, called the decision “a victory for democracy.” She was joined by several state lawmakers and pro-life supporters, as well as Will Brewer, TRL legal counsel and legislative liaison.
“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 Mrs. Dunn, who is a member of Holy Ghost Parish in Knoxville. “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. This decision will allow our Tennessee laws to reflect our Tennessee values that unborn children should be protected by law and that every person deserves the right to be born.”
“Those of us active in the pro-life movement today stand on the shoulders of those who in 1973 refused to accept Roe v. Wade and legalized abortion as the settled law of the land. They started and continued those efforts that have brought us to this victory today,” she added, noting that since 1973, more than 63 million children nationally and more than half a million statewide have lost their lives because of Roe v. Wade.
“Tennessee Right to Life has worked hard for this day. We are grateful to God first of all. All glory belongs to Him. We are also grateful for pro-life voters who for several years now have elected pro-life super majorities in the state House and Senate—men and women who respect the sanctity of human life. It is through their cooperation and efforts that Tennessee has been able to pass some of the most protective measures in the nation,” she continued.
Mrs. Dunn pointed out that after living under what Justice (Samuel) Alito called one of the egregious legal decisions in our nation, the Supreme Court has corrected itself “and will now allow these most important issues of life and death to be dealt with as our state legislators and our citizens see fit.”
The leaders of the Catholic Church in Tennessee, Bishop Richard F. Stika of Knoxville, Bishop J. Mark Spalding of Nashville, and Bishop David P. Talley of Memphis, issued a joint statement on June 24 thanking the Supreme Court “for its careful consideration of the constitutional issues surrounding abortion.” In their statement, they emphasized the Church’s teaching that life begins at conception and is created in the likeness and image of God.
The Catholic Church in Tennessee since 1973 has been active in supporting life, preaching the Church’s teachings on the sanctity of life as well as the wrongs of abortion.
And East Tennessee Catholics have for decades been active in Marches for Life, 40 Days for Life vigils, and sidewalk counseling outside of abortion clinics to minister to mothers and their unborn children.
Shortly after the Supreme Court decision was released, Gov. Bill Lee announced that Tennessee would immediately take steps to enforce state laws restricting abortions.
“Today’s landmark Supreme Court decision marks the beginning of a hopeful new chapter for our country,” Gov. Lee said. “After years of heartfelt prayer and thoughtful policy, America has a historic opportunity to support women, children, and strong families while reconciling the pain and loss caused by Roe v. Wade. We have spent years preparing for the possibility that authority would return to the states, and Tennessee’s laws will provide the maximum possible protection for both mother and child. In the coming days, we will address the full impacts of this decision for Tennessee,” Gov. Lee said.
As Tennessee Right to Life was holding its press conference in the old Tennessee Supreme Court Chamber in the state Capitol, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III announced that he will notify the Tennessee Code Commission that Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey have been overruled, and the state asked the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals to remove an injunction and rule that Tennessee’s heartbeat abortion law can go into effect as soon as possible. The appellate court agreed and removed the injunction on June 28.
This law, which was signed by Gov. Lee on June 19, 2020, bans abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected or if a person seeking an abortion does so based on the race, sex, or Down syndrome diagnosis of a fetus. The law was quickly enjoined by the 6th Circuit amid a lawsuit filed by Planned Parenthood and other pro-abortion groups.
Attorney General Slatery also said on June 24 that in 30 days, after the judgment is issued on his request to the 6th Circuit, the 2019 Human Life Protection Act should take effect in Tennessee.
“This law fully restores the state’s pre-Roe v. Wade protections for women, girls, and unborn children upon the overturning, in whole or part, of Roe v. Wade. The law prohibits abortion except to protect the life of the mother.
“To state the obvious, Dobbs is a momentous decision. Our republic is founded on the rule of law. Accordingly, we give respect and deference to the Court on occasions when its decisions align and support our state laws, and in cases when a decision might be contrary to Tennessee state law and what the majority of Tennesseans want, as was the case with the 2015 Obergefell decision,” Mr. Slatery said, referring to the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges that a fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples.
“Most importantly, after nearly 50 years, today’s decision gives the people of Tennessee a say on what the Court called ‘a profound moral issue,’” Mr. Slatery added.
Reaction in East Tennessee
Tennessee Lt. Gov. Randy McNally of Oak Ridge, who attends St. Mary Church in Oak Ridge, applauded the ruling, which once again makes abortion a states’ rights issue.
“This decision is a huge win for the cause of life. For too long, abortion policy in this nation has been controlled by the federal judiciary. Now, once again, the voters of the individual states will have the ability to make policy through democratic means,” Lt. Gov. McNally said in a statement posted on Twitter.
“In Tennessee, the voters have already made their views known through the passage of a constitutional amendment that makes clear that no right to abortion is contained in our constitution. With passage of our trigger law and a comprehensive heartbeat bill, Tennessee’s General Assembly has been well prepared for this day. Very soon the pro-life voters of Tennessee will finally see their policy preferences enshrined in law. A great day for the cause of life and the state of Tennessee,” he added.
U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann of Chattanooga, who attends the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, believes the majority opinion corrects a misinterpretation of the U.S. Constitution by the Supreme Court in 1973.
“Today is a momentous and historic day for our Republic. Forty-nine years ago, in 1973, the Supreme Court twisted our Constitution to create the right to abortion that has never existed in the Constitution. With today’s ruling, the egregious and wrongly decided Roe v. Wade decision and 1992’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision have been struck down, and the question of abortion goes back to the states and the people where it belongs,” Congressman Fleischmann stated June 24.
He represents the Third Congressional District, which includes areas of Hamilton, Bradley, Polk, McMinn, Monroe, Roane, Morgan, Scott, Anderson, Campbell, and Union counties—much of the Diocese of Knoxville.
“Since 1973, over 63 million innocent babies have been killed because of Roe. Beginning today, every unborn child has the chance to live as our Creator intended. I am proud that Tennessee will lead the way to protect life in our state now (that) Roe is gone,” Congressman Fleischmann continued.
Among the lawmakers joining Mrs. Dunn at the Tennessee Right to Life press conference were William Lamberth, state House Republican Majority Leader, Senate Republican Majority Leader Jack Johnson, Rep. Susan Lynn, and Rep. Scott Cepicky.
Rep. Lynn sponsored the Human Life Protection Act in 2019, also known as the trigger bill because it triggers the restoration of Tennessee’s protections for women, girls, and unborn children in the event Roe v. Wade is overturned.
After giving their statements, Mrs. Dunn and Mr. Brewer answered questions from several media outlets that covered the press conference.
Understanding the impact
Mr. Brewer, who also attends Holy Ghost Church, urged the public to read the Supreme Court opinion and understand what it says rather than “buy in to the misinformation that’s out there by multiple sides.”
He highlighted the court findings that the right to abortion “is not deeply rooted in the nation’s history and tradition. The court also says that just as with the nature of the (1973) court’s error, much like the infamous decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, Roe was also egregiously wrong and on a collision course with the Constitution from the day it was decided.”
In Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court ruled in 1896 that racial segregation laws did not violate the U.S. Constitution as long as the facilities for each race were equal in quality, a doctrine that came to be known as “separate but equal.” That decision has been roundly criticized and debunked as racist. The high court reversed this decision on May 17, 1954.
“This (Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization d ecision returns this issue to the states. It returns this issue to democracy. And for those who claim to be pro-choice, this is the ultimate choice: the choice to lobby, to vote, to influence legislative bodies across this country,” Mr. Brewer said, echoing the justices. “Here in Tennessee, we are blessed with the legislators we have and the leadership we have that show the compassion and mercy and love to both the woman and the child.”
Mr. Brewer thanked legislators in the Tennessee House and Senate and Gov. Lee and his administration for their pro-life support and for advancing legislation that protects women and children.
“This decision affects existing law in Tennessee and where we go in the immediate future,” he noted, underscoring the fact that the Supreme Court decision immediately impacts Tennessee’s heartbeat law and the Human Life Protection Act.
“In the state of Tennessee, we have two laws currently on the books that this directly affects. The first law is commonly known as the heartbeat bill. It is a pre-viability ban that begins at six weeks gestation. That law has been enjoined by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. Attorney General Herb Slatery has filed a motion to remove that stay in light of today’s opinion. We expect that the 6th Circuit will grant that motion swiftly, and beginning almost immediately, abortion will be prohibited in this state from six weeks on,” Mr. Brewer said.
He explained that with the Human Life Protection Act, or trigger law, 30 days after the Supreme Court’s judgment has been officially entered, abortion in Tennessee will be prohibited in all cases except when the life of the mother is at risk.
“We have worked for years on this. Abortion is the issue that gets the attention. But we, as an organization, have worked closely with crisis pregnancy centers and adoption agencies in our communities and other resources throughout this state to make sure that if a woman chooses the life of the child that they are both met with love and compassion for the best possible future for that child,” Mr. Brewer said. “We look forward to effecting positive legislation to ensure that every child is loved in this state.”
He cited the critical support Gov. Lee and his wife, Maria, give to adoption programs in supporting children in Tennessee.
Reflecting on the decision
Paul Simoneau, who has led pro-life efforts for the Diocese of Knoxville as its director of justice and peace, was grateful and reflective about the ruling.
“For those who have especially participated in our 14 40 Days for Life campaigns since 2007, having kept vigils before three separate abortion facilities in Knoxville over the years, the news of the Supreme Court decision was particularly joyous. We are indeed blessed in Tennessee by those who saw this day from afar and charted a very difficult path so that our state would be ready for this day,” Mr. Simoneau said.
“Though not the case in many other states, we can rejoice in Tennessee because of the efforts of a lot of incredible people. Here, I think especially of former Rep. Bill Dunn and his wife, Stacy, president of Tennessee Right to Life. The long journey from amending the state Constitution through SJR-127/Amendment One in 2014 to the Human Life Protection Act of 2019 of which they were instrumental, is what gives us the ability to rejoice today,” Mr. Simoneau continued, noting that support for pro-life efforts is as important now as it ever has been.
“Of course, there is still so much more to do; the fight is not over—far from it. And our vote for life will continue to remain critically important. We certainly cannot say enough about the heroes who work in our pregnancy help centers, particularly those of Catholic Charities. Their services are going to be called upon even more now, and there are going to be more mothers who will need our help and support. So, this incredible victory also brings the added responsibility of helping mothers in need,” he said.
Mr. Simoneau’s partner in diocesan pro-life efforts, Lisa Morris, didn’t think she would see Roe v. Wade reversed in her lifetime.
Mrs. Morris, who has worked with Mr. Simoneau in leading the diocese’s 40 Days for Life vigils and other pro-life initiatives, remarked that it was a gift from heaven that the historic decision was announced on the solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and on the birthday of March for Life founder Nellie Gray.
“I am so grateful for the wisdom and courage of the five justices who reversed this decision, which was wrong from the beginning so many years ago on so many levels. I always said I would love to see Roe v Wade overturned in my lifetime, but I didn’t think I would. I’ve been active in the pro-life movement about 25 years, and (June 24) was truly a miraculous and glorious day as our nation came one step closer to protecting and cherishing God‘s precious gift of life,” Mrs. Morris said.
“My prayers continue for a conversion of heart for all to choose life, for all the innocent lives lost, and for healing for those whose hearts have been broken by the tragedy of abortion,” added Mrs. Morris, a Sacred Heart Cathedral parishioner. “My heart is filled with joy and hope as we begin this new and beautiful era of post-Roe. Thanks be to God and all the people who have persevered over the decades to bring this moment to fruition. Now, we will work state-by-state for a conversion of heart for all in every state to choose life and make abortion unthinkable.”
Appearing on the podcast Indie Thinker with Reed Uberman on June 25, Tennessee Right to Life of Greater Chattanooga president Candy Clepper said that while she hoped it would happen, she, too, didn’t think she would see the end of court-mandated abortion in her lifetime.
“First and foremost, to God be the glory. This is His fight, and we are soldiers in His army,” Ms. Clepper said. “The prayers of so many people are the No. 1 thing that has brought us to where we are today.”
Ms. Clepper also is grateful to those pro-life supporters who began the effort 49 years ago and continued until the next generation stepped up. That effort has been effective in Chattanooga, where she noted there has not been an abortion facility for about 30 years. “By and large, Chattanooga is a pro-life place.”
Angel Brewer, who was first introduced to the pro-life movement as a freshman at Knoxville Catholic High School in 1976 and is now the treasurer for Tennessee Right to Life, is not only rejoicing about the reversal of Roe v. Wade and offering prayers of thanksgiving, she also is grateful for all the “prayer warriors” from all faiths who have joined in the effort.
Protestants have joined Catholics in taking on the fight against the “culture of death,” Mrs. Brewer said, adding, “Through the years, we have had so many of our Protestant pro-life volunteers tell us, ‘the Catholics have always carried this issue.’”
“Abortion really is a generational issue. It is a tragedy to think of the generations of lives lost in the last 49 years, and 66 million lives. It is also generational in that our parents led us to this cause for life, and we have led our children and grandchildren to it. My parents were very active in the local pro-life movement and involved all of their children in it,” she continued. “Now their children and children’s children are involved and celebrating the Supreme Court decision together. Deuteronomy 30:19 tells us, ‘I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live.’”