Pilgrimage for Life Sends a Message about Prevailing Sentiments on Abortion in Tennessee

By Joe Bailey, Features Editor—

In lieu of their attendance at the 2021 March for Life in Washington, D.C., the Diocese of Knoxville held the anti-abortion event, Pilgrimage for Life, on Jan. 30 at Chattanooga’s National Memorial for the Unborn. 

Chattanooga is the largest city in the United States without an abortion clinic, making it an appropriate place for what Youth Ministry Office Director Brittany Garcia called a celebration of the pro-life standpoint. Pedro Garcia, event organizer and husband of Brittany Garcia, said that he and many others at Pilgrimage for Life take pride in this fact about the city. 

Others in Chattanooga are not so proud. Even at the event, several of what seemed to be honks of disapproval blared from cars as they passed the venue.

Kimberly Osment, of the Chattanooga Health Advocacy Team (CHAT), is less abrasive in her approach to anti-abortion viewpoints, but seeks to push back nonetheless. The lack of options for people who want abortions is no secret to her and other public health advocates in the city. 

“If you want to go anywhere to get affordable healthcare for uterus-havers specifically, it’s going to take awhile,” Osment said. “You are going to have to go for two hours north, south or west, and that’s not terribly helpful for anybody.” 

Instead of an abortion clinic, Chattanooga has Choices, a chain of “Crisis Pregnancy Centers” which claim to help people with unplanned pregnancies make a plan. A quick look at their Yelp reviews reveals that many view Choices as an anti-abortion institution. This is not helped by the fact that their East Chattanooga location stands in the property adjacent to the National Memorial for the Unborn. 

Just one door over, the atmosphere at the pilgrimage was sentimental. Pro-life themed christian rock played through speakers as attendants shuffled through the gate where tables promising hot chocolate and catered Chick-fil-A awaited them. The courtyard area where the speeches would take place was just outside the memorial proper, where countless letters from families to their unborn children lay beside brass plates inscribed with their names. 

Inside stood a banner which read, “A Burden Lifted: We are dedicated to healing generations of pain associated with the loss of aborted children.” 

Brittany Garcia kicked off the courtyard presentations by giving an overview of their reasons for organizing the pilgrimage. The March for Life normally sees thousands of pro-lifers protesting in Washington, D.C. on the anniversary of the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling. But this year, with a global pandemic and unrest at the capitol, Diocese of Knoxville thought it best to relocate to Chattanooga. 

“Today we celebrate life,” Garcia said. “And we celebrate every single life, from conception to natural death, and we also pray for an end to abortion.” 

Next, Pastor Mike Nolan led a prayer.

“For every little child, that we might accept and preserve each one as a sign of the infinite love of God for us, we pray to the Lord,” he said. 

For most at the pilgrimage, the anti-abortion perspective was at least in part rooted in Christian faith. Garcia said that her belief in the sanctity of the human soul significantly influenced her stance. For her, the soul exists at every stage of life, including the point of conception. 

“When you have sex, a child is a very natural outcome,” she said. “That is one of its main purposes.” 

Garcia’s faith also rejects the idea of contraception. She said that the use of contraceptives reinforces abortive ideas and that sex should not be used for pleasure alone. 

“You have a responsibility in self control,” she said. 

Osment said that she and other pro-choice advocates have had a lot of exposure to perspectives similar to Garcia’s. She said that it’s important to listen when confronted with views like these. 

“There’s a reason people think the way they do,” Osment said. “And I don’t think that anything can change without clear and honest communication, and just listening to the other side just to see where they come from. My main argument any time I’m with anti-choice people is that I fully believe in the autonomy of those seeking an abortion. I believe that your body is your body, and that nobody has permission to use it without your consent.”

Osment added that she would also never go against somebody who wanted to keep a fetus. 

“But if you don’t want to, if you feel this is not the right journey for you, you should be able to make that decision on your own,” she said. 

In the end, Osment stressed that the beliefs of religious groups should not override the bodily autonomy of individuals. 

Garcia was adamant that the perspectives of men should also be taken into account when couples are met with unplanned pregnancies. To her, a pregnancy is something that a couple shares, just as they would share a baby.

“You can have an abortion without the man’s consent,” she said. “And I think that’s wrong.” 

Local pro-life advocate Jim Bello also gave a speech at the pilgrimage expanding on this sentiment, but this time from a man’s perspective.

“We live by a very simple and tragic philosophy that says, ‘If it feels good, do it, and if it hurts, stop,’” he said. 

Bello believes the love that connects a father to his child is something that should not be severed for the sake of expediency. Some men may believe themselves to be pro-life, that is, until they finally reach that fateful crossroads, where they have to decide whether or not to terminate a pregnancy. At that juncture, doubts inevitably arise. To Bello, giving in to the temptation to abort, so that one might carry on with what he sees as a life full of pleasure and free of consequence, demonstrates a lack of integrity. 

Just one of many problems with this line of thought, as Osment sees it, is that the material conditions surrounding a pregnancy may strip the pregnant person of their ability to properly carry or deliver a fetus, let alone care for it after it’s born. The person carrying a fetus may lack a permanent partner, in which case the onus falls squarely on that person to make the decisions and provide the resources. In all cases, the common element of a pregnancy is the pregnant person, not their partner. They have to do all the hard stuff, so it should be their decision.  

“Forcing somebody to go through with a pregnancy, just because they feel like that’s the right thing for somebody else, isn’t okay,” Osment said. 

All manner of practical issues can make carrying out a pregnancy undesirable or even traumatic. Problems in utero may result in defects or stillbirth. Even when facing such challenges, Osment said that she has met anti-abortion advocates who say a pregnant person should still go through with it. 

Going beyond the practical, guilt was also a major theme at Pilgrimage for Life. This was certainly the case for Esther Golightly, who shared a personal account detailing the ramifications of an abortion she went through earlier in her life. 

“My heart was broken, and has continued to hurt every day, for decades, since my abortion,” she said.

At college, Golightly fell in love, got engaged and soon found herself pregnant. Her partner convinced her that she would need to settle down, get a job and care for their child so that he could attend graduate school. She soon realized that he had little interest in supporting a family. 

“My whole world came crashing down around me,” she said. “My dreams of finishing college and my future started to fade. It became my problem. He was not there for me. I felt trapped, and without much thought, I made the desperate decision to have an abortion.”

Ultimately, Golightly said this decision violated her religious and moral ideals. 

“I threw away the only baby I would ever have,” she said. 

Golighly later developed an autoimmune disease which left her infertile. Despite material success, the disease, along with the knowledge that things could have been different, ate away at her denial until buried guilt finally surfaced. 

Through her faith, Golightly eventually found an avenue to properly grieve, and in so doing developed some semblance of inner peace. Now, she has resolved to ensure no woman has to go through what she went through. 

Osment said that experiences such as Golightly’s always have to be taken into consideration, especially by those on the pro-choice side. 

“I have my own life experiences and I’ve held my own points of view for so long,” Osment said. “That’s why I try to say that we should listen, because I do want to learn why—why they think the way they do.”

Guilt is a two-way street. Some may feel guilty over having an abortion, while others may feel guilt at having forced new life into an unfit environment, bringing unnecessary suffering into the world. If anything, this suggests that guilt alone is an unreliable foundation on which to construct beliefs. 

Osment said that guilt pushes some to go through with pregnancies even when they don’t want to be parents. 

“I do try to tell people, ‘It is very lucky that you feel comfortable enough in your life to be able to take care of an unwanted child,’” she said. “But children should be wanted.” 

Autonomy can be a source of guilt, but it can also lead to things like pride. It may not lead to any feelings whatsoever. What it all ultimately boils down to is the choice being made and the person making it. Chattanooga Health Advocacy Team (CHAT), and organizations like it, make it their goal to inform people as to the options available when it comes to their bodies, and to not push them down one path or another. 

Pilgrimage for Life and CHAT could be seen as a microcosm of the pro-life/pro-choice debate at large. Chattanooga, and Tennessee in general, are changing. New people with new ideas are brushing up against entrenched institutional powers with ever increasing frequency. Students have an opportunity, and perhaps a responsibility, to gain an understanding of a debate which could play a massive role in the lives and wellbeing of many down the road. Wherever an organization or individual might want to steer the course of history, listening seems to be a good first step. 

Check out this story’s appendix here.

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