Building a culture of life

Diocesan faithful represented at Pro-Life Day on the Hill

The East Tennessee Catholic

As the Tennessee General Assembly prepares to adjourn the 2024 session this month, pro-life supporters in the Diocese of Knoxville hope lawmakers will adopt into law the Underage Abortion Trafficking Act that would strengthen efforts to tackle human trafficking.

This bill would prohibit the concealing, recruiting, or harboring of a minor for the purpose of procuring an abortion without parental consent.

Their hopes were buoyed earlier this month when lawmakers in the House and Senate passed the Baby Olivia bill, which requires public schools to implement a family-life curriculum that teaches students about the humanity of the unborn child, including showing a video outlining gestational development of the child.

The Baby Olivia bill now goes to Gov. Bill Lee, who is expected to sign the measure into law.

Both bills were explained and discussed on March 19 in Nashville, where Tennessee Right to Life sponsored Pro-Life Day on the Hill. Also discussed were issues surrounding in vitro fertilization, which has been a recent topic in the news and with Pope Francis.

Pro-Life Day on the Hill draws pro-life supporters from across the state to the capital, where they gather for a luncheon, hear speakers, are briefed on pro-life legislation, and meet with senators and representatives.

Groups of Diocese of Knoxville parishioners were included in the more than 200 people who took part in the annual event, which was held at the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum.

Among them were Curt and Kay Sheldon of Alexian Village in Signal Mountain; Marc Aramian and Veronica DiPippo of the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul Parish in Chattanooga; Orville Fisher, Paulette Croteau, and Peggy Burnette of St. Mary Parish in Athens; Dr. Michelle Brewer of the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus; and Dot LaMarche of St. John Neumann Parish in Farragut.

The Catholic parishioners spent part of their day in the Cordell Hull building, where the House and Senate members’ offices are located.

The Sheldons, who now live in Alexian Village but also maintain ties to Loudon County, met with Rep. Lowell Russell, who represents parts of Loudon and Monroe counties, and Rep. Patsy Hazelwood, who represents part of Hamilton County as part of Pro-Life Day on the Hill.

“Both were receptive to us. The meeting with Rep. Hazlewood was very brief as she was on her way to a meeting. She initiated a discussion about her perception of a need to allow exceptions for rape and incest. We countered by pointing out to her that rape and incest are tragic events, but that there is still a God-given life at risk that needs to be protected. We told her that all unborn children, even those resulting from rape or incest, should have their lives protected,” Mr. Sheldon said.

“Rep. Russell had time for us to have a more lengthy meeting. He seems to be very much in the pro-life corner. He asked us about IVF (in vitro fertilization). We told him that even embryos created in a laboratory are human children and deserve protection. We discussed that the embryos destroyed in the Alabama case were rightly determined to be children and should have been better protected,” Mrs. Sheldon added.

The Alabama Supreme Court in February issued a ruling declaring that embryos created through in vitro fertilization (IVF) should be considered children. The ruling stems from a case involving the unintentional destruction of frozen embryos in an Alabama fertility clinic.

While Mrs. Sheldon has participated in previous Pro-Life Days on the Hill, Mr. Sheldon said it was his first experience, and he was “pleasantly surprised” at the ease of access to elected officials and the courtesy with which they were received by the lawmakers and their staffs.

The couple said they were impressed by guest speaker Dr. Marc Newman of the Speaker for Life organization and by Will Brewer, Tennessee Right to Life legal counsel and lobbyist, who gave a legislative update for the attendees.

The Sheldons said they support both bills supported by Tennessee Right to Life, noting about the Baby Olivia bill that “the information about the unborn baby could influence the lives of these students for many years to come.”

Ms. Croteau said the event inspired her to return, especially since her representatives were attending to legislative business and weren’t available to speak to her.

“I attended the meeting on the hill to become better informed on the issues being considered for legislation,” Ms. Croteau said. “The keynote speaker was very informative and engaging. And I especially liked our pro-life lobbyist for putting the issues before us in clear language. I find it difficult to understand the language used to write the bills. I have always been for pro-life issues but have not been very politically active. I do vote in all elections but have always been confused. This helped to clarify how I want to vote.”

“I had never been to the offices of the elected officials and was a bit saddened when some were still in session, therefore I could not meet them personally. That fact gives me incentive to go back another time,” she added. “My thought on both pieces of legislation is I’m in favor of both. I strongly believe that parents want the best for their children, and parents should be the only ones to give permission or to deny permission for their girls to obtain any medical or non-medical procedure.

“I firmly believe in the sanctity of life from the moment of conception, and all life must be revered and protected. As for the legislation requiring all schools to teach the humanity of the unborn persons, which also must include the gestational development of the unborn child, all humanity is sacred from conception to natural death and should be treated as such.”

Mr. Fisher, who is active in the Diocese of Knoxville’s pro-life community, said standing up for life is high on his list of priorities.

He regularly takes part in rosaries prayed in front of the Planned Parenthood location in East Knoxville and has been involved in the recent Lenten 40 Days for Life campaign led by St. Anne Parish in Bristol, Va., and other churches in Upper East Tennessee.

“I attended Pro-Life Day on the Hill because it’s important to stay current on everything and support Tennessee Right to Life. I also appreciated the opportunity to meet some of our state government leaders,” Mr. Fisher said. “The talk by Dr. Newman was the day’s highlight. He included the strongest language I’ve heard since the Mississippi Dobbs decision about the people who feel they must bring abortion back to Tennessee.”

Mr. Fisher believes it is also important to be active in pro-life matters to preserve what has been gained in the state legislature. He would like to see attendance at Pro-Life Day on the Hill continue to grow.

“I’m glad TRL is proposing additional legislation. Our pro-life laws will be attacked from every angle, so it’s important to strengthen them in every way possible. An effort to get factual information on pre-born babies’ development in front of young people is especially important,” he shared.

Mrs. DiPippo and Mr. Aramian, Catholic filmmakers ( who are active in the pro-life community, were among the event’s speakers and talked about their latest work, a commercial touting life for Tennessee Right to Life that will be aired statewide and also a film called “He Named Him Adam,” which tells the true-life story of Chattanooga’s Regina Block. This faith-based feature film is about the power of Jesus Christ in healing post-abortive women.

Ms. Block is now the executive director of the National Memorial for the Unborn in Chattanooga.

Veronica DiPippo, center, and Marc Aramian of Crunch Entertainment discuss their pro-life film work during Pro-Life Day on the Hill.

Mrs. DiPippo and Mr. Aramian said they attended Pro-Life Day on the Hill to support Tennessee Right to Life and the pro-life cause as well as to tell people about their new film and pro-life commercial.

They were especially inspired by Dr. Newman’s talk.

“Fortunately, our senators are very pro-life. But it’s extremely important for us who support pro-life measures to support our lawmakers because Big Abortion is funding attacks on them to get them to change their votes. One legislator said he gets 500 pro-abortion calls or e-mails to every pro-life one. Our notes of support or calls or visits mean the world to these tireless representatives of the people of my district. I must do my part to help them stay the course,” Mr. Aramian said.

Mr. Brewer and Stacy Dunn, president of Tennessee Right to Life, told the audience that so far this year there have been more than 17,500 fewer abortions in Tennessee since the Dobbs decision.

Mr. Brewer explained that the 2023 legislative session was the first one after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 landmark decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which was “kind of a brave new world of what to expect.” He reminded those in attendance that last year several Republicans in addition to Democrats pushed exceptions that would have weakened Tennessee’s Human Life Protection law, an abortion ban considered the strongest in the country.

“An independent government study came out a couple of months ago that said in the six months following Tennessee’s abortion ban being put into place, there were an additional 2,500 lives added to the birth rate in Tennessee. So, we know that those are not 17,545 abortions going elsewhere. Those are lives being saved in Tennessee, and we are proud of that. We have worked very hard to not let exceptions into our law that would create gaping loopholes for abortions to happen,” Mr. Brewer told the group.

In explaining the Underage Abortion Trafficking Act, Mr. Brewer said this legislation is generating a lot of attention for some lawmakers.

“There has been a lot of media outrage about this bill. There has been a lot of misinformation about this bill. There’s been a lot of propaganda about this bill,” he said.

He calls the legislation, sponsored by Rep. Jason Zachary and Sen. Paul Rose, a “parental-rights bill.”

“It isn’t prohibiting anyone from getting an abortion as long as that minor has their parents’ consent. What it is making sure doesn’t happen is an overzealous uncle or a best friend or a best friend’s parents take your child out of state to get an abortion without your knowledge as a parent,” Mr. Brewer pointed out. “If the clinic at your child’s school is not even allowed to give your child a Tylenol tablet, then children certainly shouldn’t be allowed to be taken out of state for abortions.”

And he noted that the misinformation is practically viral.

“Another misconception is that this bill is prohibiting people from traveling out of state. First of all, it isn’t prohibiting anyone from traveling out of state. It’s just with parental consent. Second of all, it never mentions the term out of state. This bill only bans travel within the state without parental consent. What we all know is that you can’t travel out of state without first traveling in state,” he explained.

Mr. Brewer credited the Baby Olivia bill sponsors, Rep. Gino Bulso and Sen. Janice Bowling, as well as former state Rep. Bill Dunn, “who had the idea years ago to include curriculum in schools that would recognize the unborn.”

“He (former Rep. Dunn) had always talked about a bill like this. His philosophy is that we teach students about slavery. We teach students about the Holocaust. We teach that those were times when certain groups of people were not granted personhood. They were thought of as less than persons. But now we teach about these people, and it just seems grotesque to us that there was ever such a time that this kind of thinking happened. Well, we now think of unborn children in the same way. They are thought of as less than people. So, anything we can do to educate children, students, the public that these are people with equal rights to personhood as you and I is always a good thing,” Mr. Brewer said.

Mr. Brewer acknowledged that the recent Alabama Supreme Court decision on IVF was controversial, but said, “That was truly a victorious moment for us because we know that fertilized embryos are children, and they do deserve those protections.”

Also among the speakers was Rep. Jason Zachary, who represents part of Knox County in the General Assembly. He was first elected to the Tennessee House in 2015.

He said Tennessee has gone from being a destination state for abortions to after 15 months since the U.S. Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade, more than 17,000 babies’ lives have been saved with Tennessee’s Human Life Protection Act, which became law in 2019.

“And as I’ve said multiple times, we have the strongest pro-life legislation in the country. But the enemy is never going to slow down in coming after our children. We have to be vigilant. We have to stay on guard,” Rep. Zachary said.

He also cited the statistic that 51 percent of abortions now are being performed with pills, and minors are among that 51 percent.

“Ladies and gentlemen, our work is not done. We have to stay vigilant. We have to stay the course no matter the opposition,” said Rep. Zachary, who shared that for the first time in his five terms in office protesters recently picketed him during Sunday services at his church in West Knox County.

“That is just another example of why we don’t back up; we don’t back down. We just press forward. … The pushback is intense, but we keep pushing forward. And we need your support. We need your continued prayer. We need your engagement,” he said.

He credited former Rep. Dunn and his wife, Stacy, for their tireless leadership in supporting life across the state.

Mrs. Dunn told the participants that this year’s theme for Pro-Life Day on the Hill was “Building a Culture of Life.”

“Poppa” Jordan St. John lifts the Hometown Hero Award he received from Tennessee Right to Life on March 19 in Nashville during Pro-Life Day on the Hill. Joining Jordan on the dais are his father, Brad St. John, his mother, Tommie St. John, center, and Tennessee Right to Life president Stacy Dunn.

“This means a lot of different things. It means passing legislation like the Human Life Protection Act, which has already saved more than 17,000 children from being aborted in our state since June 2022. It means caring for the vulnerable moms and their unborn children like our wonderful pregnancy centers do every day. It means educating our communities about the humanity of the unborn child and the beauty of life in all its ages, stages, and conditions. And it means helping the mothers who are grieving a child lost to abortion,” Mrs. Dunn said.

“It means making commercials and movies and using your gift of music to build a culture of life. And it means being a family like the St. John family from Paris, Tenn. The St. John family is this year’s Tennessee Right to Life Hometown Hero,” she added.

The St. John family operates Sweet Jordan’s, a Paris bakery and ice cream shop that is staffed by individuals with special needs. The motto of the West Tennessee business is “focusing on abilities, not disabilities.” “Poppa” Jordan St. John, who is the adult son of owners Brad and Tommie St. John, is the face of the business. Jordan was born with Down syndrome.

Mrs. Dunn explained that “the St. John family is building a true culture of life at their business by staffing it with men and women with special needs. In turn, these women and men are able to share their talents, their skills, their joy, and their love with others. … The St. Johns share such sweetness with others, not only with those they employ but with every person who walks through their doors.”

“We want to honor Sweet Jordan’s and the St. John family for being amazing community leaders and sweetening their community with love and life and for building a beautiful culture of life right here in Tennessee,” she said.

Tommie and Brad St. John, Jordan’s mother and father, thanked Tennessee Right to Life and the audience, with Tommie St. John saying, “We’re humbled and honored to be a part of God’s plan. Jordan had less than a 5 percent chance of survival. I found out when I was four months pregnant that he had Down syndrome. We were 19 and 20, newlyweds, and we had a lot of people tell us that we were naïve and didn’t understand what we were getting into, and that we should end the pregnancy. We knew better,” she said, trying to hold back tears. “And Jordan is changing lives today because of that. We are so thankful and honored to get to be his mom and dad.”

Jordan then addressed the audience, asking “how is everybody doing?”

“I am blessed and honored. Sept. 1 is our seventh anniversary (in business). Dreams do come true. ‘Field of Dreams’ is my favorite movie, and as they say in the movie, ‘if you build it, they will come,’” Jordan said.

Mrs. Dunn recognized Mrs. DiPippo and Mr. Aramian for creating the new pro-life commercial that is to be aired around Tennessee.

“We continue to believe that building a culture of life means putting truth and beauty into our communities. The media has decided to try and portray Tennessee and our Human Life Protection Act as a bad thing. The idea behind this ad was to reinforce that it’s a good thing to live in a state that protects the precious gift of life in all its ages, stages, and conditions. I think this ad captures that beautifully,” Mrs. Dunn said. “Building a culture of life in our state isn’t easy work. And it takes all of us using the skills that we have. Every pro-life person has a part to play in this culture-building work. But sometimes, at any given point, we may not feel quite qualified or equipped with the right tools for the job.”

But she said when everyone joins in to build a culture of life, they make a difference in the lives of the unborn.

Legendary race car driver Darrell Waltrip spoke to the audience and shared how he and his wife of 55 years, Stevie, have supported the pro-life cause.

Mr. Waltrip, a Daytona 500 winner as well as a three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion who won more than 80 races before he retired and became a national television racing broadcaster, said he was addressing the group out of respect for his wife, who is a staunch pro-life advocate.

“I’m excited about being here with you. … Just so you know, the reason I’m here is because Stevie wanted me to be here. She has been against abortion ever since there has been abortion. She wanted me to come here and share a little bit with you folks, pray with you folks, sing the National Anthem with you folks, and just be here with you. I’m glad I’m here.”

Dr. Marc Newman of Speaker for Life, delivers the keynote address at Pro-Life Day on the Hill on March 19 in Nashville. Dr. Newman warned that pro-abortion supporters are intent on undoing pro-life gains.

In introducing Dr. Newman, Mrs. Dunn said the guest speaker was there to help equip, motivate, and inspire the group in building a culture of life.

Dr. Newman is a communications trainer, an incisive pro-life apologist, and the president of Speaker for Life, a training firm dedicated to equipping pro-life advocates with public-speaking skills. The former California resident now lives in East Tennessee and is a retired University of California-Irvine communications professor.

“Folks, we are in a battle. I can’t tell you how happy I am to live in the great state of Tennessee, where I was able to move and live among people who share my values regarding the sanctity of human life,” Dr. Newman said. “We have the Human Life Protection Act. And that is great. But the enemies of life, they have Tennessee in their sights. And I need to let you know, the enemies of life, they fully intend to prevail over you.”

He encouraged the group to support efforts to turn pro-abortion states like California, Illinois, New York, North Carolina, and Virginia into pro-life states that are like Tennessee.

“Be a contender for life. … Are we going to sit here, happy that our children are protected and yet not do enough to consistently push back against our opponents so that those people in other states can recognize that having a pro-life ethic is not only achievable but that you can maintain it?” he told the group.

He said states like Illinois are even funding mobile abortion units, vans that drive around the state terminating pregnancies, and California is promoting itself as an abortion destination by placing billboards in other states.

And continuing to reference California, he said that state also is creating a telehealth network where California abortion doctors can be accessed via phone or Internet by women in pro-life states. Pregnant mothers can then be prescribed abortion pills by these telehealth doctors without ever being examined by a doctor.

Dr. Newman then shared that governors of more than 20 states have formed a pro-abortion alliance to try and strengthen the grip abortion has on much of the country.

“California is proudly at the forefront of recruiting, educating, and employing the next generation of abortionists. These states want to forgive student loans and offer tax credits to people to relocate to their states for abortion-access reasons. It’s mind-blowing,” he said.

“I have to impress upon you how important it is to understand that this is the world view of the abortion industry. And this is precisely, if given the opportunity, what they fully intend to turn you into. That is their goal. They are not very shy about what they intend to do,” he added. “It is abortion on demand.”

“So, why does this matter?” he asked. “Well, it matters because human lives matter. And human lives matter because human lives are created in the image of God. And as a nation, we have forgotten that.”

Angel Brewer, executive director of Tennessee Right to Life’s Knox County chapter, pointed out that TRL rebranded the event for 2024 from Pro-Life Women’s Day on the Hill to Pro-Life Day on the Hill because “the issue of life is one that men and women, young and old alike, understand and support.”

“We work to protect life in all its ages, stages, and conditions, and it was good to see so many people from across the state come together to celebrate life,” Mrs. Brewer said. “This event is important. It is important to keep our grassroots folks engaged in what is happening in our legislature. The process of writing, proposing, and sponsoring a bill takes many months, if not years, and it is easy to get lost in that process. But our elected officials need to and want to hear from the people at home who put them in office. Our elected officials are faced with so many issues; it is important to keep the issue of life at the top of their proverbial pile.”

While the annual event is also a celebration of life, Mrs. Brewer emphasized that there still are many challenges confronting pro-life efforts in Tennessee, even with Roe v. Wade reversed.

“It would be great to think with Roe overturned and abortion illegal in our state that we could all focus our attention on another important issue. The abortion industry has proven that they are not going to give up. They are losing millions of dollars. A group of mostly out-of-state plaintiffs is trying to get the Human Life Protection Act, our life-saving law, enjoined and then reversed right now,” she said.

“If they succeed, babies will die again, and mothers will be forever changed. We cannot let that happen. Our most vulnerable citizens are counting on us to remain vigilant. Our mission is to protect all life, from conception to natural death. We are fighting a culture that finds death a convenient answer to inconvenient circumstances. God is the author of all life, and only He can write the ending,” she noted.

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