Tennessee cities grapple with enforcement of new abortion laws

By: - July 7, 2022 3:28 pm
Nashville women protest the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson on June 24, the day of the ruling. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Nashville women protest the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson on June 24, the day of the ruling. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Since the U.S. Supreme Court effectively overturned Roe v. Wade on June 24, municipal officials across Tennessee have grappled with how to respond to and enforce new abortion legislation. 

Some were quick to push back on the ruling with opposing legislation while others confirmed they would uphold Tennessee’s “trigger ban” law, which will take effect in mid-August. In two of the state’s four largest cities, elected officials and both county and city legislative bodies have remained silent. 

Nashville: Reproductive-rights supporters through and through

On the day the Supreme Court ruled to give abortion decisions to individual states, several elected Democratic officials and candidates made statements opposing the ruling and undertook efforts to fight Tennessee’s near-total ban on abortions. 

Metro Councilmember Delishia Porterfield announced she would introduce a resolution urging the Metro Nashville Police Department to make enforcement of the abortion ban a low priority and to monitor harrassment against reproductive-health facilities. The bill also called to restrict the use of city funds to investigate abortion cases and to prevent housing discrimination based on reproductive health decisions. 

On Tuesday, Metro Council  passed the resolution with one abstention.

Metro Nashville Councilmember Delisa Porterfield (District 29) (Photo: Metro Council)
Metro Nashville Councilmember Delisa Porterfield (District 29) (Photo: Metro Council)

Similarly, Nashville Mayor John Cooper announced an initiative to extend health coverage for Nashville’s more than 15,000 city employees to include reimbursement for obtaining medical procedures unavailable in Tennessee. Benefits are slated to include transportation, accommodations and related costs.

 “While our options to protect the right to choose in Nashville are limited by current law, we must do everything we can to continue providing access to health care and safe, affordable care for those who need it. I’m proud to be advocating for all Metro employees to have this essential benefit,” said Cooper in a press release.

Cooper’s announcement received support from leaders of several reproductive-rights groups, including Francie Hunt, the executive director of Tennessee Advocates for Planned Parenthood, and Jennifer Pepper, president and CEO of CHOICES Memphis Center for Reproductive Health.

“I hope today’s announcement will serve as inspiration for other local leaders across the state to follow suit and fight back against the outrageous injustice imposed on millions of women across Tennessee,” said Hunt. 

Nashville’s district attorney, Glenn Funk also announced he would not seek to incarcerate a doctor or patient involved with abortions.

“The legislature passed last session a very restrictive abortion ban that was clearly unconstitutional. A part of that law said that doctors had to tell their patients that they could decide to not go through with some abortions halfway through the process which no real scientist says is true. But the law says that doctors have to say that to their patients,” he said. 

After winning the Democratic primary, Funk faces no opposition in the upcoming August elections. 

Memphis: Officials clash on abortion stances

The Shelby County Commission hasn’t filed any abortion-related legislation, but Memphis City Council member JB Smiley announced on Wednesday his plans to introduce a resolution urging the Shelby County District Attorney and local law enforcement not to prosecute women or doctors making reproductive-health decisions.

Smiley, who is running for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, also said that if he is elected governor he will seek to decriminalize abortion in Tennessee. 

“Banning abortion is not only legislatively immature, it ignores the fact that nearly 37% of counties in Tennessee are maternity deserts. This means the county has no access to maternity care, no hospital that offers obstetric services, no OBGYN, no certified nurse-midwife or no birthing center,” he said in a campaign statement.  

“Under my administration, we will make sure that women control what happens to their bodies and significantly improve access to maternity care when they decide to grow their families,” he added. 

Memphis City Councilmember JB Smiley speaks at a Democratic gubernatorial debate in June. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Memphis City Councilmember JB Smiley speaks at a Democratic gubernatorial debate in June. (Photo: John Partipilo)

In contrast, Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich old CNN that she will make decisions on abortions case by case.

“It is a dangerous path for a DA to make broad and hypothetical statements without an actual charge or case before them,” she said. 

Weirich’s Democratic challenger, Steve Mulroy, said if elected, he would make abortion prosecutions an “extremely low priority.”

Both candidates debated abortion on the WKNO Channel 10 program, “Behind The Headlines,” in which Weirich warned that choosing not to prosecute abortion cases could trigger the state attorney general to step in. 

In 2021, Gov. Bill Lee signed into law a bill allowing state intervention in prosecutorial decisions by local district attorneys to temporarily replace district attorneys who refused to prosecute controversial cases. House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, sponsored the legislation after Funk announced he would not prosecute teachers for requiring masks as a precautionary measure against COVID-19. 

Mulroy disagreed and said district attorneys should be able to decide what will be high priority versus low priority cases.

Chattanooga and Knoxville: Mute on abortion

The Knox County Commission, the Knoxville City Council, the Hamilton County Commission and the Chattanooga City Council have not pursued any legislation to either support or oppose new abortion laws.

“Knox County Commission as a local legislative body has nothing to do with abortion, it’s a matter for state legislators,” said Knox County Commissoner Larsen Jay.

The agenda for the Chattanooga City Council, which is next in session on July 12,  showed no abortion-related legislation. The Hamilton County Commission met on July 6 and their agenda showed no abortion-related legislation

Instead, abortion stances were taken by the county district attorneys.

Knox County District Attorney Charme Allen’s office said they will prosecute abortion after a case-by-case evaluation. 

“As we do in all cases, we will evaluate law enforcement investigations, apply the law as set by the General Assembly to the facts of the case, and pursue charges where justice demands,” said Sean McDermott, assistant district attorney.

Allen faces Democratic candidate Jackson Fenner, who has not stated his stance on abortion.

Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston was ousted by Republican candidate Coty Wamp, who now faces Democratic candidate John Allen Brooks.

Both have been vocal on their opposing abortion stances, with Wamp seeking to enforce state laws regarding abortion and Brooks saying he will not prosecute anyone making reproductive health decisions.

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Dulce Torres Guzman
Dulce Torres Guzman

Dulce has written for the Nashville Scene and Crucero News. A graduate of Middle Tennessee State University, she received the John Seigenthaler Award for Outstanding Graduate in Print Journalism in 2016. Torres Guzman is a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. She enjoys the outdoors and is passionate about preserving the environment and environmental issues.