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Tennessee law denied Allie Phillips an abortion. So she's now running for office

Allie Phillips, 28, is running to represent Tennessee's District 75. She also cares for four children at her in-home daycare in Clarksville during the week.
Emily Moses for NPR
Allie Phillips, 28, is running to represent Tennessee's District 75. She also cares for four children at her in-home daycare in Clarksville during the week.

The path to Tennessee politics for Allie Phillips began last year in her doctor's office. She was 19 weeks pregnant when she got the devastating news about her unborn daughter: only two of the four chambers in her heart were formed.

It was one of many severe congenital issues. The fetus was incompatible with life.

Phillips is 28. She and her husband already have a 6-year-old daughter. They had picked out a name for her sister: Miley Rose.

Phillips already knew there were complications with the pregnancy, and she had been bargaining with the universe for days leading up to this appointment. Maybe there would be treatment for whatever condition her daughter had. A transplant. A cure, even.

That was not the case.

The doctor laid out the options. The first was to stay pregnant and brace for a likely miscarriage. The second was to terminate the pregnancy – at the time, Tennessee had a near-total abortion ban, though it has since added some narrow exceptions. So going out of state was the only possibility. "She couldn't offer me any resources," Phillips says.

She and her husband would have to navigate the path forward alone. "I felt like a very small person going through that situation."

Phillips and her husband live a modest life. Phillips runs a daycare out of her house, and her husband is a forklift mechanic. Flying out of state on a few days' notice wasn't something they could do with ease, so they started a fundraiser and asked friends and family for help. After days of frantic phone calls around the country, she made an appointment at a clinic in New York to have the procedure. When she got there, the fetal heartbeat had already stopped. She was in danger of becoming septic.

"I'm very thankful for that clinic because they treated me like a human being," Phillips says. "Unlike my state did."

When she returned home, grieving and angry, two things happened quickly. The first was that she joined a number of other women who, with the help of the Center for Reproductive Rights, are suing Tennessee in hopes of changing the state's austere laws.

The second is that she decided it wasn't enough simply to keep telling her story – though she had been posting every moment on TikTok "because I wanted people to see what somebody has to go through when they live in a state like Tennessee."

She needed to do more to change the law. Now, Phillips is in a political race that is being closely watched by people all over the country as a stress test for the Republican party on abortion rights.

She didn't go looking for it; the opportunity came to her. One person who had seen her on TikTok was Charles Uffelman, head of Montgomery County Democrats. He had been watching her tell her story and says, "I was pretty inspired by it." Then, he says, he did a double take. "I realized, she lives here. She lives in Clarksville."

Allie Phillips' living room mantle is dedicated to Miley Rose and decorated with gifts from friends, family and TikTok followers.
/ Emily Moses for NPR
/
Emily Moses for NPR
Allie Phillips' living room mantle is dedicated to Miley Rose and decorated with gifts from friends, family and TikTok followers.

At first, Uffelman recruited Phillips just to get involved with the Democratic Party. Eventually, he asked her to run for a Tennessee House seat in District 75. Standing in democratic headquarters in Montgomery County, an hour outside Nashville, he's surrounded by campaign signs and fliers. He points to a map of his districts. They're not as blue as Nashville, but not as red as most of the state.

"The fight for breaking the super majority is gonna run through the suburbs," says Uffelman, tracing his finger along the Montgomery County line.

Tennessee is one of nearly 20 states that have a Republican supermajority, with large majorities in both legislative chambers and control of the governor's office. Breaking that supermajority – that's what victory would look like for Tennesse Democrats.

Phillips' district is one that Democrats have identified as flippable.

Whether or not Democrats gain this seat in November may come down to voters like Jodi O'Connor, who also lives in Clarksville. "I have conservative values. I believe in Jesus Christ and all that," she says. "But that doesn't make me not want to have equal rights and, and rights for women."

O'Connor is a realtor. She's 67 and voted for Trump, but she likes to call herself a "republicrat" — historically she's supported candidates from both parties. This year, Phillips' race is pulling her to the left. "Allie's got the vision and the and the, you know, the drive," O'Connor says. "Hopefully she will win."

O'Connor says she's still in disbelief that the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, repealing federal protection for abortion. That was a right she grew up with. She's relieved a member of Generation Z is picking up the fight. "That is what it's going to take," she says, to win back reproductive rights.

Phillips' platform is pegged to abortion rights, but she also wants to fight for gun safety and improve education. Her opponent, incumbent candidate Jeff Burkhart, declined to be interviewed for this story. He's been quiet on the issue of abortion.

"I would recommend to any of our Republican candidates to just stay away from the issue," says Doug Englen, with the Montgomery County Republican Party.

He says donations have been strong lately. Party leadership is feeling good about their platform focusing on schools and business. Abortion, he says, is not a productive topic for them. They've made their position clear in local and national messaging. "You don't have to answer the questions that are entrapping," Englen says.

That mirrors a stance Republicans are taking across the state and the country. And it's one that some are questioning.

"It poses a problem for the Republicans," says John Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. His polling shows most Americans — even in conservative Tennessee — want reproductive rights, including the choice to end a pregnancy that isn't viable.

"Republicans want them. MAGA-ites want them. Yet the state legislature is not inclined to do that," Geer says. "If indeed Allie Phillips beats the incumbent, that would send a very strong signal."

Philips doesn't even have to win to send a message to the Republican Party, Geer says. Even coming close could send a shock through the system.

Allie Phillips, 28, discusses homework with her 6-year-old daughter, Adalie, at their home in Clarksville, Tenn.
/ Emily Moses for NPR
/
Emily Moses for NPR
Allie Phillips, 28, discusses homework with her 6-year-old daughter, Adalie, at their home in Clarksville, Tenn.

One recent night, Phillips talks to her 6-year-old daughter, Adalie. "I'm hungry," her daughter says. Phillips' candidacy has garnered plenty of national media attention, and Adalie is often waiting while her mom finishes interviews after a long day of work. "Honey, look, daddy's pulling up right now," Phillips tells her. "He's gonna get you something to eat."

Working and campaigning and parenting, it's a lot. But Phillips says it's for the sake of her daughter's reproductive rights that she's doing it. "It's my job as a mother to take care of my daughter and keep her safe," she says.

Running for office, she says, is her way of fighting for that safety — for her daughter and everyone else's daughters.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Katia Riddle