Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirms lower court decision blocking Tennessee’s order restricting abortions during the pandemic
Last night, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a preliminary injunction granted by a lower court, allowing abortion clinics in Tennessee to continue providing time-sensitive abortion procedures during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The decision comes after Gov. Bill Lee issued a state order on April 8 banning all abortion services other than medication abortions (which involve taking pills and are only available until 11 weeks of pregnancy), despite leading national medical groups agreeing that abortion procedures are essential and time-sensitive. Tennessee is one of eight states where officials have exploited the COVID-19 pandemic to limit abortion access.
In its decision, the court wrote, “The State has never, at any point in this litigation, attempted to support its policy choice with expert or medical evidence. This is unsurprising because, as far as we can tell, every serious medical or public health organization to have considered the issue has said the opposite.”
“This decision sends a clear message to Tennessee: You cannot use a public health crisis to cut off abortion access,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights. “In the last month, courts across the country have ruled that states cannot use emergency powers to deny women the right to end a pregnancy. It’s time for states to stop exploiting this pandemic.”
“We are so relieved that we can continue seeing patients and providing the essential abortion care they need,” said Rebecca Terrell, executive director of CHOICES Memphis Center for Reproductive Health. “It’s common sense that abortion is time-sensitive and cannot be delayed.”
“Once again, it’s taken a court fight to stop another governor from exploiting this pandemic to score political points. Abortion is time-sensitive, essential health care that cannot wait for a pandemic to pass. Today’s ruling is a sigh of relief for patients,” said Alexis McGill Johnson, acting president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “We cannot forget that the essential workers on the front lines of this pandemic are the same people who are disproportionately harmed when access to health care is attacked. We’ll continue to fight these cruel attacks on abortion in Tennessee and across the country.”
“This is a critical victory for Tennesseans who, on top of all the turmoil of this moment, are facing an unintended pregnancy and urgently need care,” said Julia Kaye, staff attorney at the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project. “We hope the state will now focus on protecting its citizens during the pandemic rather than exploiting the crisis to push an anti-abortion agenda.”
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, many state officials have attempted to ban or limit abortion. In addition to Tennessee, lawsuits are ongoing in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Ohio, and Oklahoma. Leading medical organizations like the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and the American Medical Association (AMA) have opposed Tennessee’s order, stating: “Permitting abortion care — which is essential, time-sensitive health care — will not substantially increase the burdens hospitals face as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The vast majority of procedural abortions are performed in non-hospital settings, and they typically require only minimal PPE.”
Tennessee also bans the use of telehealth for medication abortion — a method that could greatly expand access and reduce in-person contact. Other abortion restrictions in Tennessee include: a mandatory 48-hour waiting period (which includes a requirement that patients 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.
This lawsuit was filed by the Center for Reproductive Rights, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Tennessee, pro-bono counsel Kramer Levin, and local counsel Barrett Johnston Martin & Garrison, LLC. Plaintiffs in the case are CHOICES Memphis Center for Reproductive Health, Knoxville Center for Reproductive Health, Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi, Bristol Regional Women’s Center, and Dr. Kimberly Looney.
The decision is available here.
- April 8: Gov. Bill Lee issued a state order on limiting “non-emergency” health care procedures. That order banned all abortion services other than medication abortions (abortions by pills)
- April 13: Order challenged in court by the Center for Reproductive Rights, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, pro bono counsel Kramer Levin, and local counsel Barrett Johnston Martin & Garrison, LLC.
- April 17: Federal district court in Tennessee granted a preliminary injunction, allowing clinics to resume abortion procedures during the COVID-19 pandemic. The state immediately appealed the decision to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals
- April 24: 6th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s preliminary injunction, meaning time-sensitive abortion procedures can continue in the state
Center for Reproductive Rights: firstname.lastname@example.org; 585-919-9966
Planned Parenthood Media Office: email@example.com; 212-261-4433;
ACLU: firstname.lastname@example.org; 212-549-2666
ACLU of Tennessee: email@example.com; 615-320-7142
Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi: firstname.lastname@example.org; 615-714-4840