Abortion wars in Tennessee expand to new fronts during pandemic

Planned Parenthood clinic
Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi clinic in Memphis. (Photo courtesy of Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi.)

A week after Gov. Bill Lee urged Tennessee schools to shut down, as an initial wave of coronavirus cases grew to 600, Tennessee Right to Life filed a little-noticed lawsuit against Planned Parenthood and the city of Knoxville. 

The March 24 lawsuit targets the approval by Knoxville’s Board of Zoning Appeals to double the size of a clinic operated by Planned Parenthood of Tennessee & North Mississippi. 

In line with the mission of the anti-abortion group, the lawsuit aims to end surgical abortion services before they can begin at the Knoxville location, which currently offers only medication abortions, contraceptives and preventative care but has had longtime plans to expand.

“I think suing a city is a first for me,” said Brian Harris, the group’s president. 

Even during a global pandemic, the abortion wars in Tennessee continue to expand to new fronts.

Harris’ nonprofit remains open for business, aided in part by a $52,000 Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, loan provided by the federal government to small businesses weathering the pandemic.

Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood of Tennessee & Northern Mississippi is operating in a severely diminished capacity while its attorneys have gone to court to fight efforts by the governor to use emergency executive powers to suspend abortion entirely.

Lee issued an executive order March 25 suspending all elective medical procedures. The order did not explicitly mention abortion. Planned Parenthood ended routine preventative services, but continued to offer surgical abortions. 

Ashley Coffield, CEO and executive director, said Planned Parenthood clinics in Nashville and Memphis limited the number of surgical abortions to ensure appointments were staggered to prevent exposure between patients. The clinics also barred companions from accompanying women coming to the clinic for the procedure.

Lee’s executive order served to galvanize abortion opponents. The governor’s order, Harris said, “was not clear enough to stop the killing of unborn children, so we mobilized our grassroots to encourage the governor to clarify it. And they did.”

Under pressure from Right to Life constituents and anti-abortion lawmakers to take a stronger stance, Lee issued a second executive order on April 8 that banned all surgical abortions. 

“The number of people we had to turn away as a result of the second executive order was shocking,” Coffield said. 

“I don’t want to share a specific number publicly because our opposition will just use it to take a victory lap, and I won’t let them do that at the expense of our patients,” she said.

March 24, 2020: Tennessee Right to Life files lawsuit against Planned Parenthood and the city of Knoxville.
March 25: Gov. Bill Lee issued an executive order March 25 suspending all elective medical procedures.
April 8: Lee issued a second executive order on April 8 that banned all surgical abortions.
April 30: Lee’s executive order barring elective medical services expired.

The abortion clinics have been hampered by other pandemic-related challenges.

Five of 10 physicians who provide abortions — doctors who work part-time or live out of state — have been redirected to perform COVID-19-related medical duties at their own practices or have been unable to travel to Tennessee. Coffield said staff at clinics and a call center are being paid time-and-a-half, in part to aid in additional childcare expenses for workers whose children are out of school and as hazard pay to work during the pandemic.

Well-women visits have been halted and the number of abortions provided have been drastically limited, she said. Providers are instead extending birth control prescriptions by phone and offering drive-through condom giveaways at their clinics. 

“Like a lot of healthcare providers, this has been a huge financial blow for us,” Coffield said.

At Tennessee Right to Life, which has temporarily suspended routine protests outside of abortion clinics, Harris said he has had to pivot. 

The group has seen an uptick in online sales: puzzles, music and rubber models of fetuses. Sunday School curriculum material about abortion is now marketed to parents with new home-schooling responsibilities, he said. 

Planned Parenthood plans to resume elective services this week as Lee’s executive order barring elective medical services expired April 30, Coffield said.