Memphis council resolution addresses abortion prosecutions

Memphis City Council member JB Smiley Jr. announces his bid for governor of Tennessee in Memphis, Tenn., Sept. 8, 2021. Smiley is one of three Democrats running for Tenn. Gov. Bill Lee's job. (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian via AP)

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - The Memphis City Council approved a resolution Tuesday urging that law enforcement and the district attorney in Tennessee's most populous county refrain from investigating and prosecuting doctors who perform abortions.

Tennessee Democratic gubernatorial candidate and council member JB Smiley Jr. sponsored the resolution and proposed it at a committee meeting. Council members approved the resolution in a vote at the full council meeting later Tuesday.

The resolution is mostly symbolic - the council does not have authority over Shelby County District Attorney General's Office - but it does shine light on how a large Southern city is addressing laws restricting abortion in Tennessee, particularly by appealing to prosecutors who have wide discretion over whom to charge with crimes. It also outlines Smiley's opposition of GOP-supported abortion laws as part of his campaign to win the Democratic nomination in the race challenging Republican Gov. Bill Lee.

The resolution says Shelby County district attorney Amy Weirich should not use resources and personnel from local law enforcement and her office for "investigations and prosecutions for decisions that should be left up to a person and their medical provider," Smiley said.

Smiley cited last month's U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning the holding from the decades-old Roe v. Wade case, which found that the right to abortion was protected by the U.S. Constitution. The ruling reverts the issue to states.

The resolution also comes in response to Tennessee laws restricting abortions that are supported by Lee. A federal court has already allowed Tennessee's ban on abortion as early as six weeks into pregnancy to take effect.

Meanwhile, a trigger law set to take effect in August would essentially ban all abortions statewide. It would make performing an abortion a felony and subject doctors to up to 15 years in prison if convicted. The resolution also seeks to shield people who get abortions from prosecution, but that group is not mentioned in the state trigger law.

In Tennessee, a resolution is an expression of the opinion of a City Council but does not have the effect of law. Also, while the Memphis City Council does not have authority over the Shelby County district attorney's office, Smiley said he hopes that Shelby County commissioners will echo his demand.

Nationally, attempts to protect abortion rights have come as tighter restrictions and bans go into effect in conservative states such as Tennessee. Several states have restrictions already in place since the Supreme Court ruling, and more are pressing to do so.

Smiley said other cities were looking at Memphis to see how the council voted on the resolution.

"Local leaders are the last line of defense," Smiley said. "If we don't stand up for the people, who will?"

Smiley also asked the council to withhold funds from the Memphis Police Department if it tries to criminalize abortion cases, which is in the council's purview.

Smiley's fellow Democratic gubernatorial candidates also have voiced support for protecting abortion access following the Supreme Court's June 24 decision. Jason Martin, a Nashville doctor, has called Lee's abortion policies "unacceptable," while Memphis community leader Carnita Atwater has said that "a woman should have total autonomy over her body. Especially when it comes to rape or incest."

Tennessee's six-week abortion ban halts abortion once cardiac activity is detected. It only makes an exception when an abortion is necessary to prevent the woman's death or "serious risk of substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function." However, it specifies that a woman's mental health does not qualify for an exemption.

Tennessee's trigger law would ban all abortions statewide, with essentially the same limited exceptions as the six-week ban.

Weirich, the district attorney, has not said outright whether she will or won't prosecute doctors who perform abortions. Weirich, a Republican who is running for reelection in August, said it would be a violation of Tennessee code for her office "to issue a broad and hypothetical statement without an actual charge or case."

Meanwhile, in Nashville, the city council has approved a resolution asking the police department to consider abortion investigations the "lowest priority." While the action is not legally binding, Nashville's police department issued a statement that it is not the "abortion police." The city's district attorney, Glenn Funk, has also promised not to prosecute medical practitioners who perform an abortion nor any pregnant woman seeking the procedure.

Separately, Nashville Mayor John Cooper and some council members are considering covering out-of-state travel for medical procedures.

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Kruesi reported from Nashville, Tennessee.