The day after carafem, a provider of reproductive health-care services, opened in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, a city council meeting was called. The lone council agenda item: a zoning amendment restricting surgical abortions to industrial areas.
The new carafem clinic, located in a commercial area, would be affected. The amendment passed unanimously. The hastily scheduled meeting lasted a grand total of four minutes.
Carafem hasn’t released a statement regarding what threat the zoning could pose to surgical abortions, which are not yet offered at the Mt. Juliet location, outside Nashville. The clinic today offers medication abortion and plans to offer abortion procedures.
“Writing zoning laws to deny access to essential health care is unfair and mean-spirited,” said Ashley Coffield, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi. “I’m not aware of any other community in Tennessee that has used this approach to hurt a qualified medical provider that is just trying to help women get the care they need.”
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Carafem opened the Mt. Juliet clinic after seeing a spike in Nashville visitors to their Atlanta location. Last year, Nashville’s last two abortion clinics closed. The Women’s Center closed in August, and Planned Parenthood temporarily stopped providing abortion care in December. While Planned Parenthood has resumed abortion services, the clinic is taking on fewer appointments but plans to ramp up soon. Meanwhile, Tennessee Republicans recently passed a so-called heartbeat bill—amounting to a total abortion ban—through the state house. The legislation would make abortion illegal as early as six weeks, before some people know they’re pregnant.
Reproductive rights and health care are under fire and Mt. Juliet officials are testing the legal temperature.
Ed Hagerty, the mayor of Mt. Juliet, is adamant that the last-minute zoning amendment had nothing to do with boxing out the new abortion clinic. When asked about the relation, he demurred. “All the city officials did was to amend the zoning ordinance, which all municipalities do from time to time,” he said. “The zoning ordinance exists to provide for the health, safety, and well-being of all citizens of Mt. Juliet, including those who are not yet citizens, whether they are visitors traveling through our city or those who may be moving here in the future.”
While Hagerty hasn’t shared his personal views on abortion, in 2015, he served as a judge for an annual anti-choice oratory contest for high school students, put on by the Tennessee chapter of the National Right to Life, the nation’s oldest and largest anti-choice organization.
Some Mt. Juliet city commissioners are more open about the intent of their zoning amendment. “If there is anything we can legally do to keep them [carafem] from opening in Mt. Juliet we will do it. I realize they have rights, but my constituents and I don’t want it here,” commissioner Brian Abston told local television station WTVF.
Commissioner James Maness agreed, sharing his thoughts on Facebook, “I am pro-life. The taking of innocent life is called murder. Abortion is not a matter of choice, it’s a matter of life and how we value life.” Hinting at the legal battle to come, Maness added: “Please don’t think this is over.”
Efforts to restrict access to abortion aren’t new in Tennessee. After Republicans gained a legislative supermajority in 2012, attempts to erode access soared. In the years following the Republican takeover, anti-choice bills, including a law requiring state-directed counseling and a 48-hour forced waiting period, entered the Tennessee legislature. The biggest change to abortion rights came in 2014 when Amendment 1, an amendment giving the state power to create and alter abortion laws, passed and added the following language to the state’s constitution: “nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion.” Its passage opened the floodgates for GOP-backed anti-choice legislation.
Despite the effort to drive out abortion providers, carafem is ready to provide health care services to those in need.
“Our doors remain open, as we continue to provide much needed reproductive health-care services, including access to abortion and contraception, to the women in and around the Nashville area,” said Melissa Grant, carafem’s chief operating officer. “We are overwhelmed by the number of clients who have expressed their gratitude for having access to the much-needed products and services we provide without having to travel hours to another clinic or state. We remain committed to serving women and couples in Tennessee, who truly need access to safe, affordable reproductive health care and family planning.”
Mt. Juliet residents are torn about the action taken against the abortion provider by the mayor and council.
“I can see why they want to [push out the abortion clinic], because we don’t want to be known as ‘Mt. Juliet, the place where you go to get an abortion,’ but at the same time, it is a medical procedure. There are a lot of components to it,” Tammy Drake, 49, a Mt. Juliet resident, told Rewire.News. “I try not to judge anyone because you don’t know what they’re going through, but on the other hand, I am a God-fearing woman.”
Another Mt. Juliet resident, Linda Sloan, 70, was happy to hear about the effort to drive out an abortion care provider. “I’m very proud to live in a community where abortion is a concern of the mayor and city council members. I’m glad I live in a conservative area where we stand up for unborn babies,” Sloan said.
Kevin Williams, also a city resident, told Rewire.News the city council’s decision “sounds contradictory.”
“If the clinic was permitted initially, then it should stay. I don’t like that—the backtrack. It seems like they made a last-minute change, perhaps due to pressure. And as far as the clinic, I don’t see a problem with it being there,” Williams, 25, said. “It’s up to the woman. A woman has to go through the nine months, the pain that me as a guy will never experience, so I don’t have any problem with the clinic. It’s totally the woman’s decision.”