On Monday February 8th at 6pm, Governor Bill Lee took the stage at the War Memorial Auditorium to address the Tennessee General Assembly and the people of the state. His pre-shared talking points emphasized budgetary priorities, celebrating 225 years of statehood, improving K-12 education, investing in rural communities, and what he described as a “pro-life and pro-family” agenda. What followed was a lengthy recounting of the state’s fiscal solvency, with only a brief mention of the human impacts of the multiple tragedies Tennesseeans have faced this past year. While Governor Lee demonstrated his prowess with a calculator, he paid little attention to the suffering of Tennesseeans.
The Governor’s priorities have consistently left Tennesseans’ reproductive freedoms in jeopardy. Reproductive justice includes the right to choose to have (or not have) a child, to raise that child in safe and healthy communities, and the right to bodily autonomy. When analyzing Governor Lee’s actions, and those of his allies, against this framework, the state of the state looks much worse than Governor Lee’s green spreadsheet would indicate. Governor Lee’s priorities have launched attacks on reproductive decision making including the most restrictive abortion law in the country passed last year, emerging attacks on birth control access this year, and limiting economic justice reforms that prevent people from making meaningful choices about their reproductive futures. Just in the last year, Governor Lee and his allies have harmed access to safe and healthy communities, expanding state surveillance over families, targeting immigrant communities for criminalization, doing nothing to stop and improve the housing crisis, blocking attempts to expand medical coverage and introducing programs to limit healthcare for Tennesseeans. Attacks on bodily autonomy included but were not limited to attacks on trans youth, expansion of criminal laws and incarceration in the state, and actions to further criminalize survivors of violence. Despite Governor’s Lee’s pride in his calculations, the impact of his record on Tennessean’s reproductive freedom does not add up.
As Senator Raumesh Akbari aptly pointed out in the Senate Democrats “pre-buttal,” in the last year, while Tennesseeans rose up and demanded real change to begin dismantling structural racism, the General Assembly responded with bills criminalizing peaceful protests. We know that racial justice issues go beyond policing and includes reproductive justice, using a reparations framework for COVID-19 recovery, sweeping criminal-legal system transformation, and radically redesigning and reimagining our healthcare systems, just to name a few.
At the beginning and end of his speech, Governor Lee explained that his faith helped him find meaning in the suffering of the past year, and encouraged Tennesseeans to focus on the opportunities for transformation we have moving forward. When those in power chose not to act, or worse, to act with hatred and malice, in a way that directly caused this suffering, can there truly be a meaning behind it? Especially when the actors responsible refuse to be accountable for their actions, to rewrite a year so tragic and paint over it with empty exclamations about millions and billions of dollars “saved.” Saved from whom? Saved from assisting those who need it most? If there’s any meaning to be gleaned from the past year, it is that we need a bold new vision for reproductive freedom built on cross-movement collaboration and cultivating leaders in the state to take action to ensure reproductive freedom is a reality for all Tennesseeans.
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