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Tennessee woman runs for office after state's abortion ban puts her life at risk

Last week's election results in Ohio and Virginia showed abortion rights remain a powerful issue on the ballot, suggesting women rights are likely to continue to be a key topic for voters in many states. In Tennessee, terminating a pregnancy is prohibited in nearly all circumstances, and this has affected women like Allie Phillips, who is now running for state office in Tennessee as a result of her experience.

Allie Phillips, candidate for Tennessee House of Delegates. Campaign via Instagram

Phillips, a Tennessee native, never imagined she would run for elected office. She also never thought she'd be forced to leave her home state to obtain an abortion to end a pregnancy that was risking her life. 

"I always wanted to be a mom," Philips, 28, told CBS News. She had her first daughter at 22 and was thrilled last November when she found out she was pregnant again.

"Everything was fine up to that point," Phillips said. Her husband and 6-year-old daughter were also very excited. But tragically, an anatomy scan — or 20-week ultrasound — revealed there was not enough amniotic fluid to support her fetus' organ development. Phillips' fetus was diagnosed with a rare brain defect called semilobar holoprosencephaly. This meant that the brain only partially develops into two hemispheres, according to the Cleveland Clinic, which also notes that most holoprosencephaly pregnancies "result in miscarriage or stillbirths." 

Devastated, Phillips had to decide whether to continue with the pregnancy or have an abortion. 

After the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade and ended the federal right to an abortion last year, Tennessee was among the states that implemented a statewide abortion ban with limited exceptions.

Phillips was informed by her doctor that her life was at risk, and she subsequently decided to have an abortion, but because of Tennessee's ban, she was forced to leave the state. She said she traveled to New York for the abortion, which cost $5,000. 

"We didn't have that amount of money…so it got to the point we were looking at taking out loans just to get this health care," Phillips said. She started a GoFundMe account at the encouragement of her followers on TikTok, where she had posted about her doomed pregnancy. Upon arriving in New York, less than two weeks after she had seen her doctor, she walked into the abortion clinic and was informed her fetus had no heartbeat. She said that her doctor had advised her that if this happened, she would need to have an abortion immediately to prevent blood clots or sepsis. 

Afterward, Phillips took some time to mourn her little girl, Miley Rose, but her social media followers began pushing her to take more action to help other women avoid what happened to her. She started meeting with representatives in her county to push for Miley's law, which would "give choice back to parents when diagnosed with fetal abnormalities."

She didn't get much traction among Tennessee politicians, but her social media support grew rapidly — her videos on TikTok about her story were gaining tens of thousands of viewership, with some of her videos reaching millions of views.

"It got to the point that I was like, you know what, I am so tired of waiting for a man to help me. I'm just going to do this on my own," Phillips told CBS News. 

In September 2023, Phillips joined 12 plaintiffs represented by the Center for Reproductive Rights challenging abortion bans in Idaho, Oklahoma and Tennessee. In April, a new law went into effect that allows physicians to perform abortions for limited medical emergencies. But the plaintiffs in the case seek further clarification. They argue the state's medical exception to its abortion ban violates the state constitution, and they want clarification as to whether the exception allows abortions in cases of fatal fetal diagnoses. The measure allows abortions to be performed if a physician determines that it is necessary to "prevent the death of the pregnant woman or to prevent serious risk of substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman," but the suit argues the law is vague and can hinder the delivery of necessary medical care. 

Being a part of the lawsuit began to make Phillips think bigger.

"Joining them has given me the extra motivation to be like okay we're definitely going to change something here," Phillips said, adding that the final straw for her was the story of the 10-year-old girl in Ohio who was sexually abused and had to travel to Indiana for an abortion. 

"My daughter is six — she is four years from that little girl's age…something like that happening to her. I have no idea and don't ever want to know. It just broke me apart," Phillips said. 

That's the moment she said she knew she had to be there not only for her daughter, but for other women in Tennessee and nationwide to set an example. 

"I'm going to do this because nobody's gonna fight for my daughter's or myself the way I will. I can scream and stand at the Capitol and go on marches and hold signs all day every day. But unless my butt is on that seat, actually voting for these bills is not gonna matter because we've learned, especially here in Tennessee, that these GOP Republicans do not care what their constituents feel or what they think or what they need," Phillips said. 

According to Vanderbilt University, 82% of Tennessee registered voters, including a majority of voters of all party affiliations, think that abortion should be legal in the state if it prevents the death or serious health risk of the mother. 

Republican presidential candidates have been developing their stances on abortion, with some promising to fight for a federal 15-week abortion ban if they are elected. Phillips says it's not up to them to decide on such a complex topic.

"These candidates are not doctors. I don't know all of their educational experience, but I could probably say 99% of them don't have an education on women's reproductive health," she said. 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in April signed into law a bill that prohibits abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, except when the life of the mother is at risk. The measure also allows abortions up to 15 weeks when the pregnancy is the result of rape, incest or human trafficking. Meanwhile, he has recently said in the trial that he would support a 15-week federal ban. 

"A six-week ban is just comical, honestly, so to hear these men just say these things — something they will never have to experience — a 15 week ban is still comical because my situation between 18 and 20 weeks is when you have that anatomy scan," Phillips said.

"It is impossible to just lay out a simple law or a blanket law, saying this is what it is, because it doesn't apply to everybody, but they think it does because they have no idea," she added. 

Phillips says that although women's rights is a top priority in her bid to be a House Representative in Tennessee's 75th District, she is also focusing on childcare access, Medicare expansion and the public school system, especially the disability system, since her older daughter has some autism. 

Phillips, who's running as a Democrat in a district where the incumbent representative ran unopposed, says she hopes to inspire other women to run.

"Take a stand because ... now is the time people are watching and they want people like me and you to run for office," she added. 

Melissa Quinn contributed to this report.

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