Most legal Tennessee abortions would end if Supreme Court sticks with opinion draft overturning Roe v. Wade

NASHVILLE - Nearly all abortions in Tennessee would be outlawed if the U.S. Supreme Court follows through with a leaked draft opinion in a Mississippi case that would overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion.

Critics, including Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi, are condemning the draft, warning that it endangers safe abortions here while a physician critic warned in a tweet that she expects to be dealing with a "back alley #abortion soon."

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and other abortion opponents cautiously praised the ruling but criticized the leaking of the draft report, first reported by Politico on Monday, as an effort to sabotage or at least force alterations to the draft opinion. Chief Justice John Roberts has ordered an investigation into the leak.

"I am concerned by the leak and any attempt to thwart justice," Lee said in a statement. "If the federal courts return full authority to the states, Tennessee's laws will automatically provide the maximum possible protection and offer a glimmer of redemption as America reconciles our troubled past. We are talking about families in crisis – not isolated clinical procedures – and our state will continue to provide protection, resources and care for both mother and child."

Tennessee is one of at least a dozen states with a so-called "trigger" law on abortion. It would become effective only if the landmark ruling were to be overturned.

Republican lawmakers passed Tennessee's trigger law in 2019, calling it the "Human Life Protection Act." It restores never-repealed state laws to prohibit an abortion after fertilization or whenever a pregnancy is confirmed with the exception of life-threatening medical emergencies. It would go into effect 30 days day after a Supreme Court ruling would allow it or following states' adoption of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution giving states the authority to ban abortions.

The law makes exceptions if the physician in his or her good-faith medical judgment, based upon facts known at the time, believes the abortion was necessary to prevent the death of the pregnant woman or to prevent serious risk of substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman. No exception is made for a woman who is suicidal.

Criminal penalties would apply to those who perform or attempt to perform an abortion, but not to the recipient, Lee said.

Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi CEO Ashley Coffield told reporters in a videoconference that abortion remains legal for now and that her agency's doors remain open.

"We will continue to provide abortion care up to the very minute when we can no longer do so legally," she said. "We know the harm that will come from this decision, and we know that it will most impact Black, Latino and other people of color who already disproportionately feel the effects of abortion bans and restrictions, a product of this country's legacy of racism and discrimination.

"Eliminating the right to an abortion will have serious, life-and-death consequences for our patients, and we will fight like hell to defend their lives," Coffield said.

But she acknowledged things look grim.

"We are most likely facing the end of safe and legal abortion in the United States, and the time to make your voice heard is now," Coffield said.

Family Action Council of Tennessee President David Fowler, a social conservative, attorney and former Republican state senator representing Signal Mountain, said he agrees with the Supreme Court's draft opinion but noted it could change. He criticized the leaking of the document as an effort to sow discord and spur changes to the opinion.

"This to me is not only unprecedented, but it creates a terrible problem for the court in terms of its own administration and evaluation of the justices' opinions or rationales or explanations," he said in a phone interview.

Fowler welcomed the language of the draft opinion.

"It is correct that the initial Roe opinion either ignored or plainly got wrong the common law regarding abortion, and everybody's known that since 1973," Fowler said. "This was just the first time a majority addressed it and admitted it."

Tennessee Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Mike Bell, R-Riceville, an abortion opponent, cautiously welcomed the draft in the hopes it would carry forward.

"It's something I've been looking forward to seeing for decades," said Bell, who years ago participated in demonstrations at Chattanooga's then-abortion clinic. "I'm hopeful that is where the court's going."

He said it would put Tennessee's law back to its pre-Roe state.

Former state Rep. JoAnne Favors, a Chattanooga Democrat and a retired nurse and supporter of abortion rights, expressed dismay over the likely ruling and went on to describe her experience working in health care during pre-Roe v. Wade days.

"People don't realize it, but back then, 50 years or so ago most of the women who had abortions were married," she said in a phone interview Tuesday. "And their husbands would bring them to the emergency room after they had them after complications, usually infections and hemorrhaging.

"We would have to notify the police they were there, and they were admitted with a diagnosis of 'criminal' abortion," Favors said.

Police would have to be notified, she said, but she didn't recall any arrests being made.

Dr. Katrina Green, an emergency physician practicing in Nashville, said if the Supreme Court's ruling goes into effect, abortion would be illegal here.

"As a result," she tweeted, "I fully expect to treat my first patient with complications of a back alley #abortion soon. And I am terrified. #ReproductiveRights."

The Rev. Laura Becker, pastor of Northminster Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga and a member of the Tennessee Christian Coalition, criticized the draft opinion as well.

"I support the bodily autonomy of all people - and especially those who are able to get pregnant," she said "Decisions about our bodies and their care should be between the individuals, our doctors and our God. Nothing the Supreme Court decides will stop abortions, but this decision would stop safe abortion care in Tennessee."

Georgia and Alabama

Georgia lawmakers in 2019 passed a "heartbeat bill" that bans an abortion after a doctor detects a fetal heart beat, which can occur as early as six weeks into a pregnancy with the woman not realizing she is pregnant.

The law contains some exceptions for victims of rape or incest, but that only applies if they filed a police report.

"Under my leadership, Georgia will remain a state that values life at all stages," Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, said in a statement Tuesday. "And as we anticipate the U.S. Supreme Court's decision, Georgians should rest assured that I will continue to fight for the strongest possible pro-life law in the country."

Alabama in 2019 passed its own near-total ban on abortion, dubbing it the "Life Protection Act." It would subject a doctor who performed a banned abortion in the state to a felony that can carry a life sentence.

Tennessee programs

In his news release, Lee touted a half-dozen state initiatives that he says support families "in crisis."

The list includes support for low-income newly expecting women with enhanced maternal health care coverage from 60 days to a year postpartum. Another expands TennCare's Health Starts initiative to support maternal health and holistic care for low-income mothers and children.

Lee also cited reforms to the state's welfare program to promote economic mobility and improved outcomes for parents and children. That was spurred by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and other lawmakers following revelations the state was sitting atop a $732 million pile of unspent federal cash.

Contact Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.