Texas law sets stage for Tennessee’s next abortion battles

By: - September 2, 2021 5:02 am
Bo Linam, right, with sign, and Mike Washington protest outside the patient entry to Planned Parenthood's Nashville Clinic. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Bo Linam, right, with sign, and Mike Washington protest outside the patient entry to Planned Parenthood’s Nashville Clinic. (Photo: John Partipilo)

On the same day a Texas law went into affect banning abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy, advocates on both sides of the abortion debate were preparing for impact in Tennessee.

Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and Northern Mississippi is on standby and ready to offer financial and logistical assistance to Texas women who decide to leave the state to obtain an abortion, said CEO Ashley Coffield. The organization operates clinics in Memphis, Knoxville and Nashville.

“We will do what we can to help Texans get the care they need here in Tennessee,” Coffield said. “Unfortunately we’re starting to think about what it will take to help our patients find care outside of Tennessee if the worst happens.”

The Texas abortion law – now the most restrictive in effect in the nation – bans abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which is typically in the sixth week of pregnancy and often before a woman knows she is pregnant. The law also allows private citizens to sue anyone who assisted a women getting an abortion after this point in pregnancy.

Those provisions have no immediate effect on women seeking abortion in Tennessee, where the fate of a “heartbeat” abortion ban, signed into law by Gov. Bill Lee then put on hold by a federal court, remains in the hands of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Without Roe (v. Wade) there is no protection for abortion in Tennessee because of all the laws that have already passed, including a six-week abortion ban and our state constitution was amended in 2014 to remove any protections for abortion rights.

– Ashley Coffield, CEO, Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi

But the decision late Wednesday by the U.S. Supreme Court — which denied denied a petition seeking to halt the Texas law before taking effect  — could be a harbinger of a shift in the court’s approach to abortion ahead of oral arguments later this year on a Mississippi law banning abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. That case is widely seen as a test case for potentially overturning the landmark 1973 Roe v Wade decision.

“We’re excited to see this,” said Will Brewer, legal counsel and director of government relations for Tennessee Right to Life, which opposes abortion. Brewer was speaking Wednesday before the court’s decision, when it appeared the court may not weigh in at all.

“We think the Supreme Court is signaling at least what its possible outcomes are with the Mississippi case,” Brewer said. “We feel like we are in possibly in an even better position and posture than Texas.”

Tennessee Right to Life and other abortion opponents worked for years to lay the groundwork in Tennessee in the event the high court overturns or pares back abortion protections established by the Roe decision.

In 1999 the Tennessee Supreme Court found the Tennessee Constitution protected a women’s right to abortion. In 2014, the Tennessee Constitution was amended by popular vote on Amendment 1 to explicitly bar a right to an abortion in Tennessee. The voter-approved language amended the state constitution to include this language:

Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion. The people retain the right through their elected state representatives and state senators to enact, amend, or repeal statutes regarding abortion, including, but not limited to, circumstances of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest or when necessary to save the life of the mother.

The amendment paved the way for lawmakers to pass an increasing number of restrictions. These include a 48-hour waiting period before an abortion, mandatory counseling, barring health plans in the state’s Affordable Care Act health exchange from covering abortions, barring telemedicine for medication abortions, requiring a woman to undergo an ultrasound and a provider to show and describe the image, a requirement fetal remains be buried or cremated and a ban on abortions performed for sex or race selection or due to a genetic anomaly.

On a practical level we have taken all steps necessary to be on par with Texas (abortion laws) right now. We do have plans and goals (for legislation next year) we are not ready to share right now.

– Will Brewer, legal counsel and director of governmental relations, Tennessee Right to Life

A so-called “trigger law” enacted into law in 2019 would bring a near total abortion ban to Tennessee should the Supreme Court overturns Roe v Wade in whole or in part.

A 2020 law requiring healthcare providers to tell patients a medication abortion is reversible remains on hold pending a trial set for October 2020.

And a 2020 “heartbeat” bill signed into law by Gov. Bill Lee, also put on hold by the courts, is awaiting a decision by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

“The attacks are relentless and they’ve been ramping up for some time in Tennessee,” Coffield said. “These mandates just tell us that the legislature and Gov. Lee will stop at nothing to take our rights away.

Coffield said advocates were anxiously awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the Mississippi case, and preparing to aid women in obtaining abortions outside of Tennessee should the decision in that case lead to outlawing abortions in Tennessee.

“Without Roe there is no protection for abortion in Tennessee because of all the laws that have already passed, including a six-week abortion ban and our state constitution was amended in 2014 to remove any protections for abortion rights.”

Coffield said she also fears that state lawmakers could look to Texas as a model for passing new legislation that adopts the strategy of enabling anyone to file suit against individuals aiding a women in obtaining an abortion deemed illegal after a fetal heartbeat is detected.

Brewer said that his organization, the advocacy and organizing force behind many of the state’s current abortion regulations, would be taking a look at the Texas law as a possible model, but noted that abortion restrictions already enacted in Tennessee “covers all of that.”

“On a practical level we have taken all steps necessary to be on par with Texas (abortion laws) right now,” he said. “We do have plans and goals (for legislation next year) we are not ready to share right now.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee. She is a graduate of Columbia University in New York and the University of California at Berkeley School of Journalism. Wadhwani lives in Nashville with her partner and two children.

MORE FROM AUTHOR