Tennessee Supreme Court Strikes Laws Restricting Abortions

September 15, 2000 12:00 am

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Friday, September 15, 2000

NASHVILLE, TN — Declaring a woman’s right to abortion fundamental under the state constitution, the Tennessee Supreme Court today struck laws that would have restricted abortions in the state. In a momentous decision, the court, for the first time in its history, considered the issue of abortion under the state constitution and held it to provide greater protection than the Federal Constitution.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which challenged the law along with Planned Parenthood, welcomed today’s 4 to 1 ruling, saying it recognized that a woman’s right to abortion is an inherently intimate and personal decision that must be protected from unnecessary state intervention.

“We are delighted that the Tennessee high court stands firm in ensuring the rights of its citizens in the face of waning federal constitutional protection for reproductive choice,” said Louise Melling, Associate Director of the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project. “The decision rightfully affirms that the choice of whether to have a child should be made by the individual rather than by state legislators.”

The laws in question would have forced a woman to receive counseling against abortion from her physician and wait two days between counseling and the abortion. In addition, one of the laws mandated that all second-trimester abortions be performed in a hospital.

The court held that because abortion is a fundamental right under the state constitution, laws regulating abortion must be considered under a “strict scrutiny” standard-the highest level of judicial review-rather than the diminished “undue burden” standard that governs questions of abortion under the Federal Constitution.

Applying the strict scrutiny standard, the court found that the state had no compelling interest in having a physician counsel a woman against having an abortion or in having second-trimester abortions performed in hospitals.

In addition, the court struck the waiting period, the longest in the nation, finding it “is not intended as an opportunity for reflection, but is actually intended as an obstacle to abortion.”

“We are heartened that the court understood that all the restrictions at issue would have served only to make abortion more difficult to obtain, to the detriment of women’s health and autonomy in the state,” said Hedy Weinberg, Executive Director of the ACLU of Tennessee.

The court also struck the laws because they failed to provide an exception to protect a woman’s health in the case of medical emergencies.

This was the second time in a month that a state supreme court struck down an abortion law under a state constitution. On August 15th, in a case brought by the ACLU, the New Jersey Supreme Court blocked enforcement of that state’s parental notification for abortion act.

Today’s case, Planned Parenthood of Middle Tennessee v. Sundquist, No. 92C-1672, was filed on behalf of two Planned Parenthood clinics and several physicians by the National ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project, the ACLU of Tennessee, and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Attorneys on the case were Louise Melling of the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project; Barry Friedman of New York University Law School and Elizabeth McCallum of Howrey & Simon, both of whom served as cooperating counsel for the ACLU of Tennessee; Roger Evans of Planned Parenthood; and Irwin Venick of Dobbins.

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