Gender Equality in Tennessee: The Fight Continues

Written By Madison Van Horn

Elizabeth Sparks looks on at her newborn son, Conan, as her husband holds his hand. Sunday, October 2, 2022. (Photo by Allie English).

Last December, Elizabeth Watts found out that she was pregnant at the age of 19 and was immediately burdened with a heavy decision; to have her child or to have an abortion.

“I’ve always been pro-choice, but I thought to myself, ‘There’s no way I could go through with an abortion,’” Elizabeth said. “I don’t think I could handle that emotionally, but having got pregnant, it made me consider, ‘Does this kid have a future? Will I be able to take care of it? Will I be able to work?’”

This narrative is all too familiar for women across the country, but specifically here in the 45th state for women, Tennessee.

According to a 2020 study by Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, Tennessee ranks at number 45 on the list of The Best and Worst States to Be a Woman based on Employment, Education, Discrimination, Reproductive Health and more. 

With the overturning of Roe V. Wade, many southern states, including Tennessee enacted a trigger law that put a complete ban on abortion. However, at the time of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, abortion was still a women’s right. 

To set the scene, Elizabeth had been struggling with her mental health for a while, so she decided to take a break with her boyfriend, Steven Sparks. During the break she found out that she was pregnant and her whole world flipped upside down.

“I was thinking, if I couldn’t handle a relationship a few months ago, how would I be able to handle having a child?” Elizabeth said. 

With little to no support system, her initial reaction was to make an appointment with an abortion clinic and take some time to think about her decision. Eventually Elizabeth spoke to Steven, who said he would support her no matter what, and they both decided to keep the baby.

Over the next nine months, Elizabeth learned what resources were available to her, including TennCare, which provides aid to low-income women during their pregnancies, and local pregnancy crisis centers, which she said helped prepare her for labor and delivery. 

Throughout her pregnancy, Elizabeth thought a lot about how her life would be different if she never got pregnant. That all changed on September 11, 2022, when Conan Sparks was born.

“I didn’t wanna take my eyes off of him,” Elizabeth said. “I’m really excited to watch him grow and start talking and walking and crawling around. I don’t know, I just keep thinking like he’s gonna have a whole personality of his own one day.”

A year ago today, Elizabeth never thought that this would be her life, but she said she would do it all again to have her son. Now, Elizabeth and Steven Sparks are married and raising Conan together in Chattanooga, TN. 

“I would tell myself that I’m gonna be okay and it seems really scary, but for me at least, it wasn’t as scary as I thought it was going to be,” Elizabeth said “And I would’ve told myself that I’m not as alone as I think that I am.” 

Looking back on her journey, Elizabeth acknowledges the hardships that she went through to have her child and she hopes that other women know they are not alone and that their choices matter.

“I didn’t know it was actually happening, that abortion was going to become illegal,” Elizabeth said. “I just didn’t even fathom that. But it really made me think about [how] it could have gone so wrong had my situation been a little off.”

Ultimately, Elizabeth got to make her own decision for her and her baby’s future; a decision that many women today are not guaranteed. 

Filmed By Jake Redfern and Madison Van Horn. Edited By Jake Redfern.
An anonymous source shares her personal experience with sexual harassment within her work place. Audio By Madelyn McCrary.

Strength in Choices

Written By Anna Truss

Kelli Combs serves as the After Abortion Support Director at Choices Chattanooga, in the hopes of supporting others. Monday, October 3, 2022. (Photo by Allie English).

It was the late eighties, and Kelli Combs was 18, barely out of high school, when she found herself pregnant with a wanted, but untimely pregnancy. 

After getting a positive pregnancy test from the Health Department, she went straight to her boyfriend’s house to share what she thought was good news.

“He did not react in the way that I expected,” Combs said. “We broke up and I never saw him again after that day.” In spite of his lack of support, she had been raised by a single mother herself and decided to go forward with the pregnancy.

Two weeks later came the devastating news that her younger half-brother had been in a car wreck and was in a coma. She had not yet told her family about her pregnancy, and witnessing her father’s grief made her hesitant to share her news.

With no family members to support her and few friends knowing of her situation, Combs felt staggeringly alone. In this vulnerable state, she made a life-altering decision. 

“I went the day before my 19th birthday and had the abortion,” said Combs.

Combs has few memories of that day, except driving herself back to the hospital and faking menstrual cramps so that her family wouldn’t be worried. And she began to try to move on.

Soon after, Combs met her now husband, but didn’t tell him about the abortion due to shame. She said, “I felt like I would be condemned. He didn’t do anything to make me feel that way. I just felt like I would be judged, so I didn’t say anything.”

Combs had always believed the child she aborted was a boy and having two daughters allowed her to push down her trauma from the abortion. Yet when her next pregnancy turned out to be a boy, the trauma came up with a splash.

Ten years into their marriage, Combs finally told her husband about the abortion. 

“He was very compassionate and supportive. He said, ‘I heard about this place, and maybe you should give it a shot. Just go see what they can do to help you,’” said Combs.

Choices Chattanooga is a nonprofit health clinic that offers aid to those facing unexpected pregnancies, including support after a decision has been made. Monday, October 3, 2022. (Photo by Allie English).

Previously called AAA Women’s Services, Choices provided individual and group counseling to Combs. In the hopes to give back to other women, she now works for Choices as their After Abortion Care Coordinator.

“Mainly just seeing how much I was helped and feeling like I would love to be part of helping others,” Combs reflects. “So I first did it as a volunteer and then ended up…being trained to lead small groups…just kind of wanting to give back.”

Choices provides medical pregnancy services, as well as family services if the woman chooses to keep the child, alongside their after abortion services.

The medical pregnancy services include pregnancy tests, STI testing and treatment, free ultrasounds and options counseling. The family services are a parenting program that can continue until the baby is a year old. Each class or meeting the parent comes to earn points toward shopping in Choices’ baby boutique for essentials like diapers, formula, cribs and car seats.

“I wish I had come to a place like this,”  Combs said about their services.

Combs has come a long way from the fearful 18 year-old she was. She now has a mantra she shares with other young women who are in her position.

“Don’t make permanent decisions based on temporary emotions…There’s help. There’s always support, even if it’s not your family.”

For more information on resources, visit

Meet the Storytellers

Madison (Maddie) Van Horn is a Senior Communication major and is currently working as the Head Editor of Rising Rock Media and Editor in Chief at the University Echo. With a passion for writing and years of leadership experience, Maddie hopes to make a difference in her community through storytelling. She hopes to continue her education after undergrad and purse a career in multimedia journalism.  Maddie can be reached at for any collaboration inquiries.

Jacob (Jake) Redfern is a videographer and Director for Mocs News, the University of Tennessee Chattanooga’s broadcasting organization. With an experienced background in Adobe editing software as well as a capable team builder, Jacob strives to create community driven storytelling using every avenue available. When not holding a camera, he enjoys the arts as a creative pursuit including that of drawing and playing music. To connect or collaborate, contact Jacob at       

Julia (Allie) English is an aspiring documentary photographer with a passion for storytelling. She currently studies both Communications and Environmental Science with the goal of bringing awareness to social and environmental injustices. Allie served as an Assistant Photo Editor with the University Echo and as an intern with Cypress Magazine. She believes in the power of visual storytelling to promote empathy and community. For collaboration, please reach out to

Anna Truss is a senior Communication major at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with experience in writing, photography, and graphic design. She hopes to work in organizational communications or public relations. When Truss is not working, she can be found with a book. She can be reached at

Madelyn McCrary is a Senior Communication major with a minor in Creative Writing at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Madelyn is a writer who enjoys multimedia storytelling that will entertain her audience as well and spark a discourse within her community. She has a passion for podcasting, photojournalism, and social media. For questions and collaborations, you can contact her at

Jordan Harris is a senior Communications major with a background in social media, photography, and writing. In the future, she hopes to work in public relations or sports broadcasting. Outside of the classroom, she can be found at sporting events, the dance studio, or anywhere that serves iced coffee. She can be reached at

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