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Commentary Abortion

Tennessee Lawmakers Cut Off My Mic, but I Won’t Be Silenced

Cherisse Scott

I will not stop speaking up about reproductive justice—nor should any of us, especially those of us who identify as people of faith.  

Last month, the Tennessee Senate Judiciary Committee invited me to speak out against the state’s pending six-week abortion ban in my capacity as a reproductive justice leader.

I had a 10-minute window to present my testimony on SB 1236, but I was abruptly cut off before my time was out.

Since my interrupted testimony went viral, I have heard mostly from Christians who thanked me for standing up to these evangelical bullies. I was surprised at how many of those who reached out were southern and white, but I am glad to know I do not hold this righteous indignation alone.

Black women’s wombs, bodies, children, and parenthood have been the focus of conservative’s misogynistic and racist campaigns for at least the last ten years. However, conservatives’ political track record is antithetical to human life. These legislators have thwarted every opportunity to ensure the flourishing and well-being of the most vulnerable in our state. I will not be silent as the Trump administration further emboldens the anti-abortion movement in this country to ramp up their dangerous attacks on fundamental rights. Nor should any of us who believe in justice—especially those of us who identify as people of faith.

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As a practice of my reproductive justice activism, my testimony highlighted the systemic and intersectional issues that exacerbate the need for abortions in our state. The Tennessee legislature’s failure to expand Medicaid, its failure to expand behavioral and mental health facilities for substance-using mothers, and state-mandated abstinence-based sex education are all examples of that. Lawmakers also seem all too ready to offer those they deem less desirable mothers—including low-income, undocumented, and incarcerated women and girls—long-acting reversible contraception instead of the full range of contraception to control their births.

I also walked into that hearing as a victim of anti-abortion activist’s ambiguous tactics. I was misled by an anti-choice crisis pregnancy center (CPC) posing as an abortion clinic in 2002. Although it was that traumatic experience that led me to the reproductive justice movement, the CPC’s manipulative approach has harmed my son and I throughout our lives together. Seventeen years later, the anti-choice movement’s eugenics-based tactics have not stopped. Any effort to control or exploit women, girls, or individuals through our bodies, sexuality, labor, fertility, or reproduction is not only eugenics, but also reproductive oppression.

It is no secret that Tennessee’s legislative body is mostly white, male, and conservative. It is also no secret that these legislators employ a perverted moral lens to inform their policy-making. In my testimony, I called the abortion ban what it is: an irresponsible and deliberate attack on the lives and bodies of vulnerable Tennesseans. As a Black woman of Christian faith who is uncomfortable with the weaponized mockery of Jesus, I also called out the un-American and un-Christian hypocrisy of these self-identified evangelical politicians. I said:

Many of you who claim to be conservative and Christian have weaponized the word of God to forward your political agendas and maintain power and control over the most vulnerable Tennesseans. You’ve manipulated biblical scripture to align with your colonialist, supremacist ideologies, instead of showing mercy—

That’s when I was interrupted before eventually being cut off.

“Your time is up,” state Senate Judiciary Chair Mike Bell (R-Riceville) said.

It was clear the committee chair just didn’t want to hear a Black woman who knows her own body, her field of expertise, and her bible call out the legislature’s reproductive and spiritual oppression. Bell may have been able to shut my microphone off, and attempt to have me removed from the hearing by law enforcement, but he will not stop me from speaking out.

The extreme abortion bans this nation recently has witnessed will harm women and girls who are low income, live in rural communities, or are incarcerated; women and girls of color; and LGBTQ and gender non-conforming people most. Why aren’t these evangelical politicians instead using their political parties to liberate each of us—which is and was the actual ministry of Christ?

My bible teaches me that Jesus came so that I might have life, and have that life more abundantly. Further, my U.S. Constitution’s Preamble teaches me that this country’s tenets include securing the blessings of liberty, and that the God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time. How is it then that our country’s governing body is so out of step with both God and this country’s law? The life I am expected to navigate as a Black woman in this country is far from abundant, blessed, or free.

I am calling in the spiritual hypocrisy, manipulation, and terrorism of this country’s governing bodies. It is time to put aside the siloed focuses on abortion prevention and access and come together—both conservatives and progressives—to work toward a lived reality every person in this country deserves. I call us in to be pro-lives, not “pro-life” or “pro-choice.” If the entire family is not flourishing, no one is flourishing. If our neighbor is marginalized, we all are marginalized. Lives are at stake across race, class, religion, and socio-economic status. The condition of people’s lives is bigger than the fight over abortion legislation.

I founded SisterReach to educate and empower the most vulnerable women, teens, and individuals in my state regarding their sexual and reproductive health. One of our organizational principles includes Hosea 4:6 (NRSV), which states: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” If lack of knowledge is what is killing us, access to knowledge is a step in the right direction to ensure that every human being can thrive and realize their human rights.

I am more empowered about my body and sexual behavior because I was given the tools and education to navigate healthy sexual health practices. That is the only sexual health goal we should be fighting for, across party lines.

And that’s why I won’t be silenced.

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