’49 years, 5 months, and 2 days’

Tennessee Right to Life remembers a half-century spent defending unborn at annual event

By Dan McWilliams

Forty-nine years, five months, and two days—that’s how long abortion was the law of the land after Roe v. Wade.

Tennessee Right to Life’s Knox County chapter marked the end of that nearly half-century at its annual Celebrate Life banquet, this year held at Bridgewater Place in Knoxville on Oct. 11. The Supreme Court overturned Roe in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision in June.

“Tonight, we’re going to celebrate life and the end of Roe,” said Stacy Dunn, president of Tennessee Right to Life and executive director of TRL’s Knox County chapter. “During the most pro-abortion presidency in the history of our nation, Roe was overturned, praise the Lord.”

More than 300 TRL supporters attended the banquet, during which the Knox County chapter offered a look back at its fight against abortion since Roe.

Will Brewer, who attends St. John XXIII University Parish and serves as TRL legal counsel and director of government relations, gave an update on the legal aspects of the abortion issue.

“This is a celebration tonight,” he said. “For the first time in 49 years, five months, and two days, it’s a celebration tonight. But the fight is far from over.”

Pro-life supporters in the Diocese of Knoxville, including from left, Father Alex Hernandez, Stacy Dunn, Angel Brewer, Father John Dowling, and Paul Simoneau, praise the Supreme Court reversal of Roe v. Wade.

Pro-life law

Mr. Brewer said, “we fight tooth and nail every year with a pro-life supermajority to pass whatever pro-life legislation we need to pass in Tennessee. We passed a really effective law to require a physician to be physically present with a woman when he or she prescribes that woman the abortion pill. We had a law like that on the books, but we really strengthened it and gave it teeth. We knew that this abortion pill was the battleground of the future on this issue. . . .Now that Dobbs has been decided, the abortion pill is completely illegal in the state of Tennessee, so thank God for that.”

He added that some women are meeting with doctors in India via webcam to receive the abortion pill.

“These women are going to India to get the abortion pill, and how are we ever going to prosecute doctors in India for the crimes that they commit in Tennessee?” Mr. Brewer said. “That is a federal crime to prescribe an abortion pill for somebody in between states to a state that has already outlawed it, but it is up to the president of the United States and his Department of Justice to prosecute it,” a remark that drew groans from the audience. “We need to continue to fight and to advocate because this is a federal issue that needs to be prosecuted, and it is currently not being prosecuted. That’s where we landed in May. We all know that June 24 was a wonderful day and a day that we have prayed for for a long time, when the Supreme Court finally overruled Roe v. Wade.”

Mr. Brewer encouraged his listeners to read the opinion in Dobbs of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.

“‘We hold that Roe and Casey must be overruled. The Constitution makes no reference to abortion, and no such right is implicitly protected by any constitutional provision,’” Mr. Brewer quoted the justice. “He makes it abundantly clear this is not something that is written in the Constitution, and it is not something that is in the fabric of this country’s laws and liberties and therefore it should go, and the states should be left on their own to decide how they can, and here in Tennessee thanks to the work of Amendment 1 in 2014, we had already made that call. Amendment 1 laid the groundwork to say there is no constitutional right to abortion, and the legislation can be dictated by the General Assembly in Nashville, however they want to do that. The people should have the voice to decide. That paved the way for 2019, for us to pass our trigger law, the Human Life Protection Act, so that on the day that Dobbs was decided the countdown began. Thirty days from the judgment of the Supreme Court, abortion was completely prohibited in Tennessee, praise God.

“No court in Tennessee can come after our trigger law. It is set in stone until a General Assembly, God forbid, far in the future, overturns it. And that brings me to my next point: we are always one General Assembly away from overturning all that we have done. . . . We need to remain vigilant in electing leaders in this state and in our communities who uphold the value of life.”

Duane and Debbie Donahoo of All Saints Parish are interviewed by Angel Brewer of Tennessee Right to Life during the annual Celebrate Life banquet on Oct. 11.

Pro-life lawmakers

Mr. Brewer introduced several people who hold public office who were attending the banquet, including state Rep. Dave Wright, state Rep. Michele Carringer, state Sen. Becky Duncan Massey, and Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs.

U.S. Rep. Tim Burchett was the next speaker, and he began by saluting former state Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville, who also attended the banquet.

“It is a pleasure being here with my dear friend Bill Dunn. I served 16 years with him in the legislature, and the reality is a lot of this wouldn’t have happened in Tennessee if it wasn’t for Bill Dunn and his leadership,” Rep. Burchett said.

Rep. Burchett recalled where he was in Washington when the Dobbs decision came down.

“When I got to the demonstrations in front of the Supreme Court building, I was met with an incredible celebration. There was prayer, there were people holding hands, singing, crying. They even had a bubble machine,” he said. “As Mr. Brewer stated, the fight is not over for the pro-life movement,” Rep. Burchett said.

“We’re not done because Roe v. Wade was overturned. We can’t give up the fight, and one major battleground is at the polls,” he said. “The last presidential election, about 20 to 30 million so-called evangelical Christians didn’t show up to vote, 20 to 30 million across this great country. That means about 20 to 30 million evangelical Christians allowed a radical pro-abortion presidential candidate to take office and appoint a judge to the United States Supreme Court who will be there for probably over 30 years. A pro-abortion president and Congress may also be able to change the makeup and size of the Supreme Court. Get this: they don’t get it the way they want, so they change the size of the court. We need to really think about that in this election cycle.”

The congressman further talked about President Joe Biden’s administration’s use of the FBI in recent weeks.

“The Biden administration was able to weaponize the FBI to arrest unarmed pro-life activists in their homes in front of their children right here in the state of Tennessee,” Rep. Burchett said. “However, they aren’t showing nearly the same dedication to arresting the vandals who have targeted around 70 pro-life pregnancy centers since the Dobbs v. Jackson decision was released. . . . We need to treat these unborn, sweet little babies with no voice with the love we have for Jesus Christ. One of the simplest ways we can love these little sweet babies is by voting for leaders who will protect them.”

Mrs. Dunn took the microphone again.

“We’ve dreamed of this day, and now we’re here,” said Mrs. Dunn, who is a member of Holy Ghost Parish. “Each of you is in this place, in that seat, at that table for this moment in time. God’s providence never fails us.”

The TRL president looked back at the time period from Jan. 22, 1973, to June 24, 2022.

“Forty-nine years, five months, and two days of fasting and praying, begging God to help us change all this,” she said. “Forty-nine years, five months, and two days of marches, oratory contests, life chains, sidewalk counseling, voting, fair booths, Sunday school and homeschool curricula, letters to the editor, trips to Nashville, e-mails, neighborhood meetings, and church gatherings.”

Remembering when

Mrs. Dunn spoke of the origins of Tennessee Right to Life.

“After the [Roe] decision was released [on Jan. 22, 1973], three ladies in Knoxville got together,” she said. “They decided they couldn’t just sit back and do nothing, so they wrote a letter to the editor of the Knoxville News Sentinel decrying the Supreme Court decision, talking about the injustice of it all. I know you’re going to be shocked to learn that the Sentinel refused to run that letter. Funny, how in 49 years, five months, and two days, some things never change. So instead of accepting defeat, these ladies formed Tennessee Volunteers for Life, which eventually became Tennessee Right to Life, and here we are today. What if those three ladies hadn’t taken action?”

Nearly 20 years after Roe, the Supreme Court had a chance to undo its 1973 decision.

“In 1992, there was hope that the high court would overturn Roe in the case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, but guess what?” Mrs. Dunn said. “Sandra Day O’Connor, a Reagan appointee, sided with the abortion justices to affirm Roe. This was a crushing blow, and looking back, we have to wonder why we didn’t quit. But pro-lifers don’t want to quit. We don’t really know how.

“The abortion numbers climbed to an all-time high in 1990, when more than 1,600,000 babies were aborted. In 1993 our Mother’s Day ad pointed out the sad fact that every third baby was killed by abortion.”

Mrs. Dunn said TRL doesn’t receive any funding for its efforts.

“Unlike Planned Parenthood, who gets half a billion of your tax dollars every year, we don’t receive any government funding for the work that we’re doing, but that’s OK,” she said. “Through the years, our friends—you—have never failed us, and we’re grateful.

“Of course, the most inspiring fundraiser we’ve done throughout the years is this: the banquet. TRL has been hosting great speakers for decades. Many of our active volunteers tell us that the first pro-life event they ever attended was the banquet, and from then they were hooked.”

The number of abortion providers in the state sharply declined over the years, Mrs. Dunn said.

“In Tennessee in 1982, there were 128 abortion facilities. In Knoxville, we had three facilities,” she said. “Across the state, those facilities shut down one by one. Our legislation was making a difference. It was ruining their profit business model. Last year before Roe was overturned, there were only seven abortion facilities in the state. Lives were saved.”

Mrs. Dunn recalled the Mother’s Day ad that TRL used to run in the Knoxville News Sentinel for many years, at considerable cost to TRL.

Father John Dowling gives a talk and prayer during the banquet, which reflected on the campaign for life over the past nearly 50 years since Roe v. Wade was the law of the land.

“When the Knoxville News Sentinel refused to report the truth about Amendment 1, we decided that we would never again send a dollar to that newspaper,” she said. “Remember when this appeared one Sunday morning in your paper?” she added as she showed a slide of an ad. “They compared you to the Taliban during Amendment 1. God’s hand closed that door, but He always opens another. The billboard campaign was born. It has grown every year since 2015, until this past year in 2022, the campaign went statewide with our ‘Follow the Science’ message. These boards have been a great teaching tool in reaching hundreds of thousands of people. But if the Sentinel had not failed in its mission of journalism, we would have never embarked on that billboard project.”

Choose Life license plates are another TRL project, Mrs. Dunn said.

“How many of you have the Choose Life plate on your car? How many of you know it was a fight for you to get that little baby on your car?” she said. “We passed the bill in 2003 to have a Choose Life plate in Tennessee, but guess what? Planned Parenthood immediately challenged the bill. But that’s always been what Planned Parenthood does. They go to the courts. In Tennessee, they knew they couldn’t win in public opinion or in our pro-life legislature, but, boy, they love the courts. So, when the Choose Life plate was passed, they challenged it. The case was appealed to the 6th Circuit, where they upheld the plate, ruling that it was OK for a state to prefer childbirth over abortion. And that is what Tennessee wanted to do: to prefer life over death. I think there’s a Scripture about that.”

Angel Brewer, TRL state treasurer and education director for the Knox County chapter, interviewed several special guests at the banquet.

“It was important even in the early years to stand for life in a public way and to publicly pray for an end to the legalized killing,” she said. “So, what did you do? You marched. We have marched every year around the day of Jan. 22. We’ve marched through rain, snow, and sleet. We’ve marched with a few hundred, and we’ve marched with a few thousand. Jan. 22, 2023, marks the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. We are going to have one last march to remember all the babies that have been killed and all the mothers whose lives have been changed forever, and then we’re going to move our celebration to June 24 and remember all of the lives that will be saved in Tennessee.”

This was your life

Mrs. Brewer, a longtime member of Holy Ghost Parish, spoke to Duane and Debbie Donahoo of All Saints Parish in Knoxville and to David Profitt and Carol Zimmerman. Mr. Profitt and Mrs. Zimmerman, who is president of TRL’s Knox County chapter, once chained themselves to an abortion machine at a Knoxville abortion clinic as part of an Operation Rescue protest.

Grace Lutheran Church pastor Rich Elseroad was Mrs. Brewer’s next interviewee.

“A lot of pastors say they’re pro-life, but they don’t act pro-life,” he said. “I was always wondering, why aren’t you taking this on? Why aren’t you mentioning this? I think one reason is lack of courage. Courage inspires courage, and if you don’t have courage on the major issues of the day, when are you going to have courage?”

Mrs. Brewer also talked with Paul Dunn III of TRL. Mr. Dunn was an early leader of Tennessee Right to Life.

“It’s worth noting that every single abortion facility that we stood at and prayed at is closed now,” Mrs. Brewer said.

She interviewed former state Rep. Dunn and Will Brewer as well.

The former lawmaker recalled how he first ran for the state legislature in 1994 when it did not have a pro-life supermajority.

“Obviously, this was the issue that got me involved in politics, to pay attention to what people were saying and what was going on….,” he said. “One of the first votes you take is for House leadership. There was a lady who was up for speaker pro-tem. She was the only candidate, and I knew her name very well because she was always the one who killed pro-life legislation. I was like, I can’t vote for her. There were 98 people [voting] for her, and I passed, and she never forgot who I was. There was not a whole lot of support down there, but the troops were on their way.”

Mrs. Dunn spoke of “another national movement that hit Knoxville in 2007, 40 Days for Life.”

“Paul Simoneau and Lisa Morris led that project and gave many hours to organize all of us and keep us safe through the year,” she said. “What an amazing effort and an amazing movement of the Spirit.”

Mr. Simoneau, vice chancellor for administration for the Diocese of Knoxville and director of the Office of Justice and Peace, showed the TRL audience photos of 40 Days prayer vigils at the former Concord Street abortion facility in Knoxville, vigils held up to the time the clinic closed.

“We were here between 2007 and 2012, and on Aug. 15, 2012, Lisa happened to be here and watched the U-Haul pull up and begin emptying out the contents of the abortion clinic,” he said.

Mrs. Dunn concluded the evening’s talks.

“Tonight, if you’re new to this work, don’t worry, you haven’t missed out. There is still a lot to do,” she said. “No one is asking you to go to jail. At least, not yet. No one is asking you to start an organization from the ground up. But we are asking you to vote. We are asking you to be a church liaison. We are asking you to host a pro-life presentation in your church, to get involved with our efforts, and we are asking you to support us financially. . . . You can’t sit back and do nothing. Lives depend on our work. Lives depend on you.”

Father John Dowling, pastor of St. Augustine Parish in Signal Mountain and a longtime TRL supporter, gave the closing prayer at the banquet.

“Heavenly Father, it is in, with, and through your Son, Jesus Christ, that we live and move and have our very being. . . . It is through our God-given gifts, for which we are most thankful, that we recognize the call, the possibility to protect, defend, nurture, and pray for all human life,” he said. “We humbly acknowledge our need for Your grace to sustain us in our efforts to open the eyes of those who do not see as Christ sees and do not love as Jesus loves, and to open our own hearts and hands, minds and mouths when we are called upon to defend, sustain, and promote life.”

To support Tennessee Right to Life’s Knoxville chapter or learn more, visit www.prolifeknox.org, call 865-689-1339, or e-mail trlknox@prolifeknox.com.

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