Tennessee laws to restrict abortion expected to take effect following U.S. Supreme Court ruling

NASHVILLE - The U.S. Supreme Court's decision Friday to overturn abortion rights will have far-reaching consequences in Tennessee and Georgia as both states have in place laws to restrict the procedure in the event of such a ruling.

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery, a Republican, said he is moving quickly on multiple legal fronts to reinstate various abortion laws and provisions that have been held up in courts under prior Supreme Court decisions of Roe, decided in 1973, and the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

Among his actions is notifying the Tennessee Code Commission in writing that Roe and Casey have been overruled, which Slatery said will enable the state to begin acting on laws it already has on the books.

Slatery said he is also asking the full U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals to lift immediately a federal district court's injunction on Tennessee's 2020 "fetal heartbeat" law and allow it to go into effect. The law would ban abortions in almost all instances when a fetal heartbeat is detected, usually about six weeks into pregnancy when most women may not realize they are pregnant.

(READ MORE: Protesters stand up for women's rights at Chattanooga's Coolidge Park after Supreme Court abortion ruling)

Other provisions such as 48-hour waiting periods and an anti-discrimination law banning abortions based on sex, race and diagnosis of Down syndrome are in place already, Slatery said.

Another Tennessee law comes into play as well, the state's 2019 "trigger" law, officially known as the Human Life Protection Act. Within 30 days of Friday's ruling, it automatically bans abortion in the first and second trimesters except when an abortion is necessary to prevent the death of the mother or if there is a serious health issue posing "serious risk of substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function."

Physicians in those circumstances have to be prepared to provide proof of that as a defense to criminal prosecution. A woman's mental health is explicitly excluded as a serious risk of substantial and irreversible impairment.

Women seeking an abortion, however, would face no criminal penalties, Tennessee Right to Life officials stressed later in the afternoon during a state Capitol news conference.

Tennessee's trigger law, which was signed by Republican Gov. Bill Lee, was later struck down by a federal judge. It has been pending before the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The full appellate court held off taking any action in anticipation of the Supreme Court weighing in. As a result, the legal challenge is expected to be dismissed.

(READ MORE: Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade; states can ban abortion)

The Dobbs ruling is a momentous decision, Slatery told reporters.

"The people of Tennessee, for the first time in 50 years, will have the chance to weigh in on this issue through their elected representatives," he said.

Lee agreed.

"Today's landmark Supreme Court decision marks the beginning of a hopeful chapter for our country. After years of heartfelt prayer & thoughtful policy, America has a historic opportunity to support women, children & strong families while reconciling the pain & loss caused by Roe," the governor said.

Georgia lawmakers passed their own fetal heartbeat bill in 2019 that seeks to ban any abortion beyond six weeks except under certain circumstances.

Like Tennessee's law, the Georgia bill was torpedoed at the U.S. District Court level. It was appealed to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, which heard arguments on the law in September. Just as the 6th Circuit in Cincinnati did in the Tennessee case, the 11th Circuit put the matter on hold to see how the U.S. Supreme would rule on the Mississippi law that resulted in Tuesday's Supreme Court decision.

Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus Chairwoman Sen. Raumesh Akbari of Memphis, an attorney, condemned the U.S. Supreme Court decision. She leveled a blast at Tennessee Republicans who control the governorship and dominate the General Assembly.

"In Tennessee, abortion is already a right in name only for many people, but, even here, the consequences for women will be swift and severe," Akbari said. "Soon, a law from 2019 will make it a felony to provide an abortion in our state. As a direct result, the few abortion providers we have left will be criminalized, and women and girls will be forced to carry pregnancies to term, even when they are a victim of rape or incest."

The law she referenced makes it a felony, punishable by three to 15 years imprisonment, for doctors and others who violate the law within Tennessee.

Tennessee Lt. Gov. Randy McNally supports the laws that are poised to take effect.

"With passage of our trigger law and a comprehensive heartbeat bill, Tennessee's General Assembly has been well prepared for this day," McNally said. "Very soon, the pro-life voters of Tennessee will finally see their policy preferences enshrined in law. A great day for the cause of life and the state of Tennessee."

(READ MORE: Reaction in Tennessee and Georgia from leaders opposing the overturning of Roe v. Wade)

(READ MORE: Reaction in Tennessee and Georgia from leaders welcoming the overturning of Roe v. Wade)

Warning of 'crisis'

Ashley Coffield, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi - which operates clinics in several Tennessee cities - said the group will do everything it can legally to help patients access abortion.

"I am heartbroken that our worst fears have become a stark reality," Coffield said. "The Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade strips more than a million Tennesseans and Mississippians of their ability to control their bodies, lives and futures.

"Let me be very clear, banning abortion will cause a public health crisis, and we will not forget (that) the Tennessee and Mississippi lawmakers who have systematically rolled back our rights and bartered our bodies for votes are the ones who got us here."

She said Planned Parenthood plans to provide abortion services Monday in Nashville and Memphis if possible.

"We'll see what happens over the weekend before we can determine whether that'll be possible or not from the 6th Circuit," Coffield said. "The trigger law in Tennessee is 30 days after the Supreme Court decision, and that is a total abortion ban."

She said the group has concerns about safety and has upped security precautions at its facilities.

Asked whether Planned Parenthood will be able to provide services under the trigger law, Coffield said no.

"Our hope is that hospitals may be able to do that," she said.

Chattanooga does not have an abortion clinic and has not for decades.

(READ MORE: In Tennessee, roots of expected ban on abortion date 20 years back)

Crossing state lines

Tennessee Right to Life head Stacy Dunn held a news conference Friday at the state Capitol with other advocates and some GOP lawmakers. Dunn noted a number of Tennessee's pre-Roe v. Wade laws remain on the books.

"Tennessee will no longer allow the abortion industry to pit the mother against her own child so they can profit financially," Dunn said.

Dunn also said the group will work against out-of-state providers who she said will seek to "lure" women to other states to obtain an abortion as well as to combat pressure by groups promising fully-funded abortions in other states that still permit the procedure.

Will Bruner, Tennessee Right to Life's legal counsel who also lobbies the state, noted Slatery is moving to ask the 6th Circuit to lift the stay on the state's heartbeat law.

"We expect that the 6th Circuit will grant that motion quickly, and beginning almost immediately abortions will be prohibited in the state," Bruner said.

The trigger law, he noted, will take effect within 30 days and prohibit abortions except to save the life of the mother.

"We expect the heartbeat bill from 2020 will take precedent in the next month or so. And following that, 30 days following the judgment, Tennessee's Human Life Protection Act will take effect and abortion will be void and prohibited," he said.

He said the group has worked for years with crisis pregnancy centers and adoption agencies. There are "all kinds of resources" available for teens and adult women across the state, he said.

Bruner said in response to questions he doesn't expect that after overturning Roe v. Wade that the Supreme Court will be encouraged to turn its attention to issues such as same-sex marriage, contraception and interracial marriages decided previously and return those decisions to states as well. That's because they do not involve "life or death" issues such as abortion, Bruner said.

Local reaction

Rep. Esther Helton, R-East Ridge, praised the Supreme Court decision.

"It places the critical issue of abortion where I believe it belongs – with the people and their elected representatives in state government," Helton said. "Today's decision has not changed my position or views on abortion. Since Tennessee has a 'trigger' law and a 'heartbeat' law in place, the pro-life community and those I represent in District 30 can rest assured that the unborn babies in Tennessee are now protected."

Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairwoman Rachel Campbell had a different take.

"Every Republican elected official and activist knew this day would come, they voted to make it happen, and they are celebrating in the streets. Those craven D.C. Republicans started somewhere, whether it be the school board or the statehouse. And local elected Republicans are not immune to the responsibility of this day, nor are the Republicans running for local office," she said.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673. Follow her on Twitter @ecfite.

Upcoming Events