Last week, lawmakers in Tennessee held hearings for Senate Bill 1326, which would redefine fetal viability in attempts to implement a near-total ban on abortion. Over the course of several hours, members of the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee heard from speakers for and against the bill, who were each instructed they had 10 minutes to make their statement before the committee.
But according to Cherisse Scott, the CEO of SisterReach, a reproductive justice organization based in Memphis, Tennessee, in practice, not everyone was granted the same amount of time. She says the speakers who preceded her all got to speak for at least 10 minutes, and many went over the time limit. But when the committee members got to her—according to Scott, she was the 19th speaker on a list of 20—Senate Judiciary Chair Mike Bell cut her off less than halfway through her statement, gavelled a recess, and asked the sergeant-at-arms to turn off her microphone and escort her out of the hearing room. Scott was the only black woman in scheduled to speak.
Footage from the hearing shows that Bell interrupted Scott just as she began talking about white supremacy and colonialism—two overlapping structures of power she says must be taken into account any time there’s discussion of restricting people’s bodily autonomy. “You’ve gone way off subject,” Bell tells her. (Bell’s office did not return VICE’s request for comment.)
Scott told VICE the rest of her story, and why she believes discussing an abortion ban necessitates reckoning with a larger history of racism and oppression.
I went into last week’s testimony with an understanding that I had a responsibility to lift up the voices of people who had been ignored or abandoned in Tennessee, as well as those who live in the states surrounding ours, and depend on Tennessee to access their reproductive freedom. At SisterReach, we do work from the framework of reproductive justice, which centers on not just the human right not to have a child, but the right to parent your children in a safe environment, and be free from all types of oppression—reproductive or otherwise.
I also went into the testimony as a black woman who has already been a victim of their so-called "pro-life" campaign. Years ago, I needed an abortion, but was tricked by a crisis pregnancy center posing as an abortion clinic. That child is alive today, and he’s entering his senior year of high school. Between now and then, these legislators have done nothing to make sure he is well, I’m well, our family is well—when I started SisterReach I was working part-time and living on food stamps. They say they’re here for people like me, and want to save my baby. But they won’t listen to me, and aren’t interested in hearing my voice.
I’m also a woman of faith; I went in the hearing room with verses from the Bible. These lawmakers don’t get to claim Christianity and hijack interpretations of it to suit their agenda. They have set such a poor example of what Jesus was here to do in the world: Christianity is not about controlling people, shaming people, manipulating them and withholding things from people that allows them to survive and thrive. These lawmakers are the antithesis of Christianity.
The legislators made each of the speakers submit an outline of our statement a week or two in advance. I timed my statement when I wrote it to make sure it came in around 10 minutes—I knew better. And I knew there was a possibility they wouldn’t let me finish. By the time I got to the part of my statement about white supremacist ideology in Tennessee, they stopped me. Senator Mike Bell hit his gavel, he said "that was enough," and he asked me to stop. But I had timed myself, so I knew I had enough time, and the other people who had spoken before me took 15, 20, even 30 minutes, with additional time for the committee to ask them questions. Then he motioned for the [sergeant-in-arms] to cut off my mic and remove me. I left of my own free will.
When we’re talking about abortion bans, especially in the South, it’s important to remember the history of how America was founded. Black women have never had full autonomy over our bodies or self-determination over whether to be a parent or not. We’re still living in a culture of supremacy and colonialism. What they’re really afraid of is losing power through population in this country: White women have slowed down having babies, and they’re worried that the Black and brown people they’ve oppressed for hundreds of years will rise up against them. Our wombs are what they need to control in order to maintain control over the country.
I don’t want to keep saying the same reproductive rights talking points. Those aren’t effective coming out of the mouths of Black women. Certain people still don’t give a damn about my rights because even 400 years later, they don’t see me as a human being. Abortion is a big piece of this struggle, but it’s not the whole piece. We need to understand how these things are connected.
Scott’s full statement—as she intended to deliver it—is below.
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