Tennessee Is First State to Pass an Abortion Ban Since Start of Pandemic, Two Months After Unsuccessfully Attempting to Ban Abortion Procedures Under the Guise of COVID-19 Restrictions

June 19, 2020

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A bill passed by the Tennessee legislature late last night banning abortion from as early as six weeks of pregnancy was challenged in court today by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Reproductive Rights, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and the ACLU of Tennessee.

The bill also prevents patients from obtaining an abortion depending on their reason for seeking the procedure, including the potential for a Down syndrome diagnosis, or the sex or race of the fetus. These types of “reason bans” insinuate that pregnant people cannot be trusted to make their own medical decisions, and do nothing to address racism, sexism, ableism, or the serious health disparities faced by marginalized communities.

If Governor Bill Lee signs the bill into law, it will take effect immediately. The emergency lawsuit being filed today asks the court to block the bill now.

“It is always shameful — not to mention blatantly unconstitutional — when politicians attempt to take away a pregnant person’s right to make the decision that is best for themselves and their family,” said Anjali Dalal, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project. “But to pass an abortion ban, which disproportionately harms Black and Brown people, when these communities are already suffering under the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and police violence, just proves that these politicians are more interested in furthering an anti-abortion agenda than in serving their constituents. The ability to get an abortion must not depend on where you live or how much money you make.”

“The courts have long held that politicians cannot interfere in someone else’s personal, private decision to end their pregnancy,” said Thomas H. Castelli, ACLU of Tennessee legal director. “In Tennessee, people of color, people in rural areas, young people, and people with limited incomes already face significant barriers to health care, and they are the very groups that will bear the brunt of this legislation. We filed this lawsuit because we cannot allow politicians who want to push abortion completely out of reach to implement yet another law that stands in the way of necessary, constitutionally-protected abortion care."

As the bill was being debated into the early hours of the morning, police officers kept the public out of the Capitol building and arrested some protestors. The passage of this ban comes just two months after Governor Lee attempted to ban abortion procedures during the COVID-19 pandemic by labelling abortion care as non-essential, despite opposition from leading national medical groups. That attempt was blocked in court in April after a lawsuit was filed by the same organizations filing today’s case.

Tennessee has several other abortion restrictions on the books, including a ban on the use of telehealth for medication abortion; a mandatory 48-hour waiting period (which includes a requirement that forces patients to delay their care to make an additional, medically unnecessary trip to the clinic to receive state-mandated information); limits on when state and public insurance can cover abortion services; and a requirement that minors obtain parental consent.

“For the second time in two months, Tennessee politicians have tried to ban abortion,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights. “First, they tried and failed to exploit the pandemic as an excuse to cut off abortion access. Now, they have given up the smokescreen and are unashamedly banning abortion outright. Courts have blocked every such similar ban in other states and Tennessee’s will meet the same fate. Tennessee should be addressing the health care needs of its people, not taking their rights away.”

“Enough is enough. It is abhorrent that Gov. Lee and politicians in Tennessee are exploiting the fear and uncertainty of a global pandemic to push their cruel anti-abortion agenda,” said Alexis McGill Johnson, acting president and CEO, Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “This opportunistic attack on our reproductive rights, passed in the middle of the night under the cover of darkness, will disproportionately impact Black Tennesseans due to systemic oppression and concerted efforts to stifle their most basic rights and freedoms. We won’t stand for this, and we are going to do everything possible to fight back against this extremely harmful law.”

Last year alone, 25 abortion bans were enacted in 12 states, including: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Ohio, Tennessee, and Utah. Due to litigation filed by the ACLU, Center for Reproductive Rights, Planned Parenthood, and other organizations, none of those bans are in effect, and abortion remains legal in all 50 states. Leading medical associations oppose abortion bans, including the American College for Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). In 2019, the president of ACOG stated, “Politicians must seek to improve access to care, not restrict it ... health care decisions should be made jointly only by patients and their trusted health care professionals, not by politicians.”

The case was filed by the ACLU, Center for Reproductive Rights, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and the ACLU of Tennessee on behalf of the Memphis Center for Reproductive Health, Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi, Knoxville Center for Reproductive Health, carafem, and two abortion providers in Tennessee.

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