Federal Court Strikes Down Tennessee’s Forced Waiting Period for Abortions

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The law forced patients to delay their abortion for at least 48 hours after receiving state-mandated biased counseling
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Today, a federal district court struck down a Tennessee law that forced patients to wait at least 48 hours before they can access abortion services, after receiving in-person, state-mandated counseling written by anti-abortion politicians. The law had been in effect since 2015. Roughly half of the states in the U.S. have similar forced waiting period laws on the books. The case was brought by reproductive health care providers in the state, represented by the Center for Reproductive Rights, Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA), Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP, Barrett Johnston Martin & Garrison, LLC, and Jessee & Jessee.

In the decision, Judge Bernard Friedman wrote, “Defendants’ suggestion that women are overly emotional and must be required to cool off or calm down before having a medical procedure they have decided they want to have, and that they are constitutionally entitled to have, is highly insulting and paternalistic – and all the more so given that no such waiting periods apply to men.” He went on to write, “It is apparent that this waiting period unduly burdens women’s right to an abortion and is an affront to their ‘dignity and autonomy,’ ‘personhood’ and ‘destiny,’ and ‘conception of . . . [their] place in society.’”

“We hope today’s decision serves as a wake-up call to lawmakers trying to interfere with patients’ personal medical decisions,” said Autumn Katz, Senior Counsel at the Center for Reproductive Rights.Patients do not need politicians to dictate their decision-making process. Patients should be trusted to make decisions about their own families and health care. This law is demeaning and actually harms patients by imposing unnecessary costs and pushing abortion later in pregnancy.” 

“We are so glad that we can now schedule our patients for care in a manner that centers their needs, not the political vagaries of our state government,” said Rebecca Terrell, executive director of CHOICES Memphis Center for Reproductive Health.

“Today’s decision is a win for patients who deserve to be trusted, free of shame and stigma, to make the best health care decisions for themselves and their families. With 17 abortion-related cases one step away from the Supreme Court — including one from Tennessee banning abortion at nearly every stage of pregnancy — it’s clear that the right to access safe, legal abortion is under attack like never before,” said Ashley Coffield, President & CEO, Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi.So many patients in our region regularly face barriers to care due to a lack of nearby health centers and systemic inequities that make it harder for people with low incomes and people of color to access care. Intrusive, unnecessary, and medically dangerous restrictions like the 48-hour waiting period only make it harder to access basic health care. At Planned Parenthood, we empower people with the information and the care they need to decide the course of their own lives. We will continue to defend their right to bodily autonomy, against any politician or bill that threatens it, no matter what.”

This decision comes four months after the Supreme Court struck down a medically unnecessary Louisiana law in June Medical Services v. Russo. If that law had been allowed to take effect, it would have closed all but one abortion clinic in Louisiana.

The  Center is challenging waiting period measures in Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Oklahoma. PPFA, the ACLU, and the Center are also challenging a waiting period measure in North Carolina.

These laws have particularly harsh consequences for those who already face systemic barriers to comprehensive reproductive health care, including individuals with low incomes, people of color, people living in rural areas, and individuals in abusive relationships, which are compounded by the mandatory delay and two-trip requirement. At trial in September 2019, Tennessee abortion providers testified that most patients are waiting much longer than 48 hours. The providers also testified that after this waiting period took effect in 2015, they saw a decrease in the number of patients with low incomes obtaining abortions at their facilities and a rise in the number of patients obtaining procedures later in pregnancy. Tennessee has one of the highest poverty rates in America, with poverty disproportionately impacting women, especially those who already have children.

Delays in accessing abortion increase the costs associated with the procedure, and although abortion is extremely safe throughout pregnancy, the medical risks increase as pregnancy progresses. Major medical associations denounce these restrictions, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) states these laws “marginalize abortion services from routine clinical care and are harmful to women’s health.”

In addition to the mandatory delay, Tennessee laws impose other barriers on abortion access, including limits on when state and public insurance can cover abortion services, a ban on the use of telemedicine to administer medication abortion, and a requirement that minor patients obtain parental consent. The Center and PPFA are currently challenging a series of abortion bans passed earlier this year in Tennessee and a law that forces doctors to tell their patients false information about medication abortion. Both laws are currently blocked.

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MEDIA CONTACTS

Center for Reproductive Rights: Kelly Krause; center.press@reprorights.org ; 917-637-3649

Planned Parenthood Federation of America: media.office@ppfa.org; 212-261-443