UPDATE: On November 20, a panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals granted a request from the state of Tennessee to let the "reason ban" part of this state law take effect.
UPDATE: On July 24, the court issued a preliminary injunction, providing longer-term relief by blocking the bans until the lawsuit is resolved.
In response to a lawsuit by the Center for Reproductive Rights and its partners, a federal district court has issued a temporary restraining order blocking portions of a Tennessee law that ban abortion at nearly every stage of pregnancy and if the abortion is sought for specific reasons.
The bans are part of an omnibus abortion bill that the Tennessee legislature passed in the middle of the night in a closed-door session on June 19. That same day, the Center, along with Planned Parenthood Federation of American, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the ACLU of Tennessee challenged the portions of the bill banning abortions. The bans immediately went into effect after Governor Bill Lee’s signature on July 13, but were blocked within minutes after the district court issued a temporary restraining order banning their enforcement.
The bans prohibit abortion at a series of cascading gestational ages, beginning at just six weeks, when people may not yet know they are pregnant. They also prohibit abortion if sought “because of” the race or sex of the fetus, or potential for or diagnosis of Down syndrome. The bans lack any exceptions for rape or incest.
"The Tennessee legislature and our Governor exhibited a truly stunning display of hypocrisy in passing this law," said Rebecca Terrell, Executive Director of CHOICES, a Memphis reproductive health center and the lead plaintiff in the case. "While they refused to fund $6 million in postnatal care for TennCare recipients, they are willing to spend millions of the state’s dollars to defend clearly unconstitutional abortion bans. In any environment but especially in the light of our current health crisis, these decisions are quite the opposite of 'pro-life.' These bans are anti-life, anti-woman, anti-Black lives, anti-poor, anti-children, anti-reason. CHOICES is grateful to work alongside our partners at the Center for Reproductive Rights to challenge this law in court."
With the temporary restraining order, people in Tennessee will continue to be able to access legal abortion in the state while the case continues to be litigated.
“Banning abortion is blatantly unconstitutional, as the lawmakers who passed this law are well aware,” said Jessica Sklarsky, senior staff attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights. “It is unconscionable that—in the middle of a public health crisis and a national reckoning on systemic racism—lawmakers are focused on trying to eliminate access to abortion.”
The omnibus law also eliminates certain resources for minors utilizing judicial bypass procedures to access abortion without a parent’s or guardian’s consent. And it requires abortion clinics to tell patients that medication abortions may be reversible, a claim for which there is no medical evidence. (The portion of the bill regarding “abortion reversals” does not go into effect until October 1.)
Tennessee Also Attempted to Ban Abortion During the Pandemic
Tennessee attempted to ban abortion earlier this year at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic by labelling abortion care as non-essential, despite opposition from leading medical groups. In April, that attempt was blocked in court after a lawsuit was filed by the Center and the same partner organizations filing today’s case.
In the past decade, lawmakers have passed more than 450 state laws in an ongoing effort to legislate abortion out of existence. Last year alone, 25 abortion bans were enacted in 12 states. The Center for Reproductive Rights, the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and other organizations have responded by filing litigation to ensure abortion remains legal in all 50 states. To date, their lawsuits have stopped these illegal bans from depriving pregnant people of their constitutional right to abortion.
“Abortion is an essential health service, and this law clearly violates the constitutional rights of patients and disproportionately harms communities of color,” said Sklarsky. “Tennessee should stop attacking reproductive health care and instead work to implement policies that will help marginalized communities. This law does the exact opposite.”
The Center for Reproductive Rights is currently litigating approximately 30 cases challenging restrictive laws and policies.