6th Circuit lifts injunction on Tennessee’s 6-week abortion ban
Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi clinic in Memphis. (Photo courtesy of Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi.)
The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals lifted a block on Tennessee’s 6-week abortion ban Tuesday, allowing the 2020 near-total ban on abortions to take effect and effectively ending access to the nearly all abortions in Tennessee.
“In light of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization… and with the parties’ consent, we vacate the district court’s preliminary injunction issued on July 24, 2020, see Memphis Center for Reproductive Health v. Slatery.., and remand for further proceedings,” the court’s one-sentence order said.
The court’s decision means the so-called “heartbeat” abortion measure is law in Tennessee, weeks ahead of the state’s “trigger” law — whose language calls for abortion to be criminalized in Tennessee on the 30th day after a Supreme Court ruling overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. On Friday, the Supreme Court in its Dobb’s decision ended a constitutional right to abortion in the United States.
On Tuesday, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery said he expects the trigger law to take effect 30 days after the Supreme Court formally issues its judgement in the Dobbs case, which is expected by no later than mid-July, a statement said.
“Thus, around mid‑August, Tennessee’s Human Life Protection Act will prohibit the abortion of unborn children after fertilization,” Slatery’s statement said.
Abortion services, however, are already becoming inaccessible in Tennessee.
On Monday, Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and Northern Mississippi made the “difficult decision” to suspend all abortion services at its clinics in Nashville and Memphis, Coffield said during a news conference on Tuesday. But, she said, “we are not going anywhere.”
Planned Parenthood clinics in Memphis and Knoxville remain open for non-abortion services while navigators will aide women and girls to access abortion in other states, she said. Patient scheduled for an abortion at the Tennessee clinics through July 1 — the last day Planned Parenthood had offered appointments amid legal uncertainties, were being aided by navigators, she said.
Coffield said call centers are seeing an uptick in calls from me seeking vasectomies, and have been quickly booking appointments for contraceptive services.
Planned Parenthood was also among the plaintiffs who sought to challenge the 6-week abortion ban. Coffield in a statement issued after the decision called the loss of abortion access “unconscionable.”
“It is unconscionable that Tennesseans will lose access to abortion in their communities because of this decision,” she said. “Planned Parenthood remains committed to helping people in Tennessee and Mississippi access abortions outside our state, and our doors are open for non-judgmental information, resources, and financial and logistical support.”
Hedy Weinberg, executive director of ACLU of Tennessee, said the law “forces people to carry pregnancies to term against their will and to face the resulting life-altering consequences.”
“The ban will disproportionately impact those who have always faced systemic barriers to care – including communities of color, young people, and people with limited incomes,” said Weinberg. The ACLU was also a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “With our partners, we will take the fight for control of our own bodies to the streets, to the capitol, and to the ballot box, until we have the power to make the best decisions for ourselves and our families.”
Melissa Grant, chief operations officer for carafem — which provides reproductive health and abortion services — said its Mount Juliet facility has been “flooded with phone calls from patients urgently trying to find out their options and our staff has worked around the clock to serve them.”
“Unfortunately,” she said, “this latest court decision means many will no longer have any option other than carrying to term against their will or fleeing the state if they need care beyond six weeks in pregnancy, before many even know they’re pregnant. In my more than 30 years in health care, nothing has been as hard as turning away patients from the care they need because politicians interfered with private health care decisions. We’ll continue doing everything in our power to serve patients up to six weeks of pregnancy.”
Tennessee Right to Life hailed the decision on Twitter, saying the ruling will “save babies from abortion.”
At 10:25 a.m. on Friday, a little more than an hour after the U.S. Supreme Court ended the Constitutional right to abortion, lawyers representing four of Tennessee’s abortion providers sent an email to their legal adversaries in the office of the Tennessee Attorney General.
The lawyers planned to ask a federal appeals court to dismiss a case they had fought for over the past two years — a lawsuit challenging Tennessee’s “heartbeat” abortion law banning most abortions at about 6 weeks of pregnancy, or as soon as a fetal electrical impulses can be detected. With the Supreme Court’s ruling, the issue was moot, the email said.
But by 11:33 a.m. the same day, state lawyers defending the law had beat them to the courthouse.
In an emergency motion to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, where the case ultimately landed, they asked the court lift its temporary injunction of the law — allowing Tennessee officials to enforce it — but not dismiss the case.
On Monday, a series of competing arguments were filed in a federal courthouse in downtown Nashville and with an appeals court in Cincinnati — with each side acknowledging the challenge to the law is a case the clinics can no longer win, but disagreeing on how the litigation should end.
Once the legal challenge ends, so too will abortion access at Tennessee’s clinics in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Friday decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
The 6th Circuit should send the case back to be dismissed by the federal court in Nashville, clinic lawyers said in legal filings Monday.
But state lawyers likened those arguments to a stall tactic designed to allow clinics to eke out more days in which they can legally provide abortions in Tennessee.
Abortion providers “want the Court’s permission to continue violating the (law) for as long as possible without conceding that (its provisions) are constitutional, even though they clearly are under Dobbs,” state lawyers argued.
“The Court should fully stay the preliminary injunction so that the violation of Tennessee’s sovereignty can end today. The lives of Tennessee children are at stake.”
A separate “trigger” law, passed in 2019 by a GOP supermajority in the Tennessee legislature, starts a different countdown clock to the end of nearly all abortion access in Tennessee. That law is expected to take effect 30 days after the Supreme Court’s decision.
That prospect has led some of the state’s providers to cease all abortion care, while others have announced they will carry a full schedule of appointments in the days to come.
Planned Parenthood clinics in Memphis and Nashville hoped to continue providing abortions until July 1, CEO Ashley Coffield told reporters Friday. In Memphis, CHOICES – the Memphis Center for Reproductive Health continued to see patients seeking through the weekend.
State lawyers on Monday asked the 6th Circuit to issue a decision as soon as possible
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.