Allie Phillips never wanted to be a politician, but she had always wanted to be a mom of two. Whenever Phillips asked her 5-year-old daughter, Adalie, what she wanted to be when she grew up, Adalie would say, "A big sister." So when Phillips found out she was pregnant again in Nov. 2022, Adalie was thrilled. "Her eyes got big and her jaw just dropped open," Phillips recalled. "Every night after that, she sang Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star to my belly. She’d kiss my belly every night before bed." Phillips and her husband planned to name the new baby Miley Rose.
But at a routine anatomy scan when she was around 19 weeks pregnant, doctors told Phillips that the fetus had significant problems with its kidney, stomach, bladder, heart, lungs, and brain. These conditions were "not compatible with life outside the womb," a doctor told Phillips. Miley Rose would likely die before birth, and the longer Phillips stayed pregnant, the worse her own health could become.
But Phillips, who lives in north Tennessee, could not get an abortion in her home state. After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Tennessee enacted one of the strictest abortion bans in the nation, leaving only the most narrow exception for emergency medical situations. In February, Phillips and her husband had to travel almost 1,000 miles to get an abortion in New York City.
Shortly after she returned, Phillips was approached by the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is representing patients in multiple states who were denied medically necessary abortions. The lawsuit seeks to ensure that pregnant patients can access abortion when their own health is at risk, and to give doctors clarity on which "medical emergencies" are exempted from state abortion bans.
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Phillips also met with her state representative, Republican Jeff Burkhart, to tell him her story. She wanted to ask for his help writing Miley's Law, which she hoped would expand abortion options for parents when a fetus is diagnosed with severe anomalies. When Phillips told him about her pregnancy loss and mentioned her older daughter, "He said, 'I thought women could only have a miscarriage in their first pregnancy,'" Phillips recalls. "The lack of knowledge, the lack of education, is astounding."
That's when she began to think about running for his seat.
Phillips is a bubbly 28-year old with a halo of golden curls and a TikTok account dedicated to her journey with pregnancy, pregnancy loss, and abortion-rights advocacy. She became a single mom to Adalie when she was 22. Three years later, she married her husband, Bryan Lynch, an old high-school flame. She runs a daycare center out of her home. "Being a single parent, daycares were expensive and hard to find," she explains. "I wanted to help other moms in my community by not charging as much."
Phillips and her husband planned to try for another baby as soon as they could afford a bigger home. In the summer of 2022, it was finally time. "We got married, we got our house, and we were about to expand our family," Phillips says. The pregnancy seemed to be progressing smoothly until the anatomy scan. Adalie wanted to see her baby sister, so the couple decided to make the routine scan in February a "family affair," Phillips recalls.
As soon as the ultrasound began, Phillips could sense that "the emotion in the room was kind of off." About five minutes in, the technician stopped the exam and told Phillips that she needed to talk to her doctor.
"Is everything okay?" Phillips asked.
"I saw some things that are concerning," the technician replied. Phillips's stomach dropped.
The doctor came in and told the family that the scan had detected multiple fetal abnormalities. The doctor urged Phillips to see a high-risk maternal-fetal medicine specialist. Four days later, after a second ultrasound, that specialist told Phillips that Miley Rose's kidneys, stomach, and bladder weren't functioning. Her heart had only two working chambers, and her lungs had not developed at all. Worst of all, the fetus's brain had semilobar holoprosencephaly, which meant the brain had not properly split into two hemispheres.
"While she was talking about everything that was wrong, I was thinking, ‘She could get a heart transplant, she could get a kidney transplant, this is fixable,’" Phillips recalls. "But then she got to the brain and I thought, ‘Oh no.'"
The doctor informed the family that Miley Rose was highly likely to die in utero. If she did make it to birth—fetuses with semilobar holoprocencephily have only a 3% chance of making it to delivery—she would die shortly after. The doctor also told Phillips that the longer she stayed pregnant, the higher her own risk of health complications, especially because her condition was already delicate because of a gastric sleeve that had been installed before her pregnancy.
But by that point, in Feb. 2023, abortion was outlawed in Tennessee. Doctors who performed abortions had to provide "affirmative defense," meaning that the burden was on the physician to prove that the abortion was necessary to save the patient's life. Phillips had two options: she could continue her pregnancy and put her own health at significant risk, or she could travel out of state to terminate it.
Phillips explained to Adalie that she wouldn't get to meet her little sister. She went to a 3D ultrasound clinic, and got Miley Rose's heartbeat recorded in a little teddy bear. Then she and her mom started looking up out-of-state clinics where she could get an abortion.
The cheapest option was in New York City. The procedure cost $1,100, the flights cost $650, and hotels were expensive. But Phillips, who had shared the details of her pregnancy and then the news of the fetal abnormalities on TikTok, received an outpouring of support from her followers, who raised money for her procedure and offered her a place to stay in the city. "I've always wanted to go to NYC," she says. "But I didn't want to go for this reason."
After she arrived at the clinic, Phillips underwent another ultrasound. That's when she was told that Miley Rose's heartbeat had already stopped. Phillips went into the hallway, sat down on the floor by the elevators, and cried.
When she was called back in to see the doctor, he explained that since the last recorded fetal heartbeat was over a week earlier, she was at serious risk of blood clots, infections, or sepsis. They had planned to do the abortion the following day, but it was too risky to wait. "It happened so fast, I didn't have a moment to breathe," Phillips says.
After she woke up from the procedure, a nurse asked her if she was okay. "I said, ‘So I'm not pregnant anymore?’" Phillips recalls. "And she said, ‘Ma'am, you're not.’"
Losing Miley Rose was hard enough. But the more Phillips thought about it, the more enraged she became. Not at the loss of her daughter, but at the Tennessee abortion restrictions that forced her to travel out of state for a procedure she needed to protect her own health.
Phillips' story had gone viral on social media as she shared details about her ordeal. In late March, the Center for Reproductive Rights reached out to her over Instagram, asking if she would join a multi-state lawsuit challenging state bans that prohibit medically necessary abortions. "It felt like a no-brainer," Phillips recalls. "The whole point of me sharing my story was to open new doors, and this was a door."
In March, the Center for Reproductive Rights filed suit against the state of Texas. In September they filed additional lawsuits against Tennessee and Idaho. The suits were brought on behalf of 20 women denied abortion care across all three states, as well as doctors and medical associations. The goal, says the plaintiffs, is to clarify the "medical emergency" exceptions to abortion bans in order to protect patients' access to abortion during dangerous medical situations, and to ensure that the law allows doctors to treat their patients without fear of prosecution.
In April, Tennessee changed its abortion law to allow doctors to use "reasonable medical judgement" to provide abortions to prevent "death... or to prevent serious risk of substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function." But the Center for Reproductive Rights argues that the way the law is currently written is "not a meaningful exception," says Linda Goldstein, senior counsel at the Center for Reproductive Rights and the lead attorney on the Tennessee case.
"Using 'reasonable medical judgement' means that the doctors can be second-guessed. If the prosecutor brings a case and hires a medical expert, the medical expert could say ‘Oh, that wasn’t reasonable,’" says Goldstein. "Doctors are at risk of going to jail and losing their license." Abortion remains a felony in the state, with doctors at risk of being sentenced to three to 15 years in prison if convicted.
In Tennessee, the Center for Reproductive Rights is asking a court to clarify that the state's medical exception must permit doctors to use their "good faith judgement" to provide abortions when pregnancy poses a risk to the patient's health, including their future fertility, or when the fetus is unlikely to survive. The suit also asks the court to affirm that pregnant patients have a right to life and health under the state constitution, and that the equal protection clause guarantees the right to an abortion when the pregnant person has a medical condition that poses a risk to their health. The goal, says Goldstein, is to "to clarify that women don't forfeit their right to life or health when they get pregnant."
As Phillips was in the process of joining the lawsuit, she asked for a meeting with her state representative, Burkhart. She visited him in June and asked for his help writing Miley's Law. Phillips asked Burkhart if he had a daughter. "If she called you and told you she had a fetus incompatible with life, and her life were at risk, what would you tell her to do?’" she recalls asking him. "He said, ‘The way I grew up, I’d tell her to continue the pregnancy.’"
Phillips says that Burkhart spend the majority of their meeting arguing with her about how "high risk" she would have to be to need an abortion. (Burkhart did not respond to multiple requests for comment; his office declined to comment on Phillips' recollection of their conversation, and did not respond to a detailed list of questions.)
Phillips knew that Burkhart, who is in his first term representing a new state House district in north Tennessee, had run unopposed in 2022. "I thought, ‘Somebody needs to step up,'" she says. Her mother suggested she run for the seat. Then two friends told her the same. Soon she started hearing from people in the Montgomery County Democratic Party, which she had joined shortly after returning from New York.
If Montgomery County had been deep red, Phillips might have passed on the idea. But she thought victory was possible. Burkhart had won his seat in 2022 with fewer than 7,000 votes, and no opponent. If she could knock on 15,000 doors, she thought, maybe she could beat him.
It may be an uphill battle. Trump won Montgomery County by double digits in 2020. But abortion bans have reshuffled political dynamics around the country, including in conservative areas. "Her campaign is already off to a strong start because she has such a clear rationale for running," says Amanda Litman, co-founder of Run for Something, an organization which recruits and trains progressive millennials to run for state and local office. (The group is not yet working with Phillips.) "I think she is the first but not the last of candidates who tried to get abortion care, especially since this is the first cycle where people will have had to newly navigate bans in many states."
For Phillips, running for office doesn't ease the pain of losing Miley Rose. But it does give her a sense of purpose. "I’m gonna take my trauma, I'm gonna take the loss of my daughter, and I’m gonna turn it into something good," she said. "The more I’m able to share my and Miley’s story, the more I’m likely to make positive change."
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Write to Charlotte Alter at email@example.com