The Volunteer State's "fetal heartbeat" measure, signed into law in July 2020 by Gov. Bill Lee, might have beaten Texas to the punch on severely restricting abortion were it not still on hold in the hands of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Texas' new abortion law — now the most restrictive in effect in the nation — bans abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected — typically in the sixth week of pregnancy and often before a woman knows she is pregnant.
But the Texas law also includes a particularly cruel provision that also allows private citizens to become vigilantes or bounty hunters and sue anyone who assisted a woman in getting an abortion after the six-week point of her pregnancy. U.S. Attorney Gen. Merrick Garland said Thursday the Justice Department has filed a challenge to the Texas law.
The big question now is whether Tennessee lawmakers, in a fit of one-upmanship, will hit the cut and paste buttons to copy the vigilante/civil lawsuits part of the Texas tragedy.
Gov. Lee has said he has no plans "to move forward beyond that what we're currently awaiting, which is a ruling from the court on the existing piece of legislation that we already have."
Thus far, extreme GOP lawmakers have not spoken up. State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R- Chattanooga, doesn't expect them to: "I think I can say we're comfortable where we are," he told the Times Free Press on Thursday.
In the meantime, on the same day the draconian Texas law went into effect, Tennessee advocates of both sides of the abortion debate were suiting up for a different kind of abortion battle.
"We will do what we can to help Texans get the care they need here in Tennessee," said Ashley Coffield, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and Northern Mississippi. "Unfortunately we're starting to think about what it will take to help our patients find care outside of Tennessee if the worst happens," she recently told the Tennessee Lookout.
The organization is on standby to offer financial and logistical assistance to Texas women who decide to leave that state to obtain an abortion at the Planned Parenthood clinics in Memphis, Knoxville and Nashville, Coffield said.
The last abortion clinic in Chattanooga closed nearly 30 years ago. But Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi recently hired a community organizer and health educator here. Already, the new hires have faced pushback from the vocal Chattanooga anti-abortion crowd.
And as for the fate of the Tennessee "fetal heartbeat law," anti-abortion advocates and lawmakers say they are buoyed by the U.S. Supreme Court decision on Sept. 1 when it denied a petition seeking to halt the Texas law before it could take effect. They see it as a sign the court's approach to abortion is shifting ahead of oral arguments later this year on a Mississippi law banning abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. That case is widely expected to be a test case for possibly overturning the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
Will Brewer, legal counsel and director of government relations for Tennessee Right to Life, told the Lookout: "We think the Supreme Court is signaling at least what its possible outcomes are with the Mississippi case. We feel like we are possibly in an even better position and posture than Texas."
In 2014, the Tennessee anti-abortion crowd successfully pushed to amend our state Constitution to explicitly bar a right to an abortion in Tennessee — a right that had been protected in 1999 by the Tennessee Supreme Court. And in 2019, they pushed our lawmakers to enact a so-called "trigger law" that would bring a near-total abortion ban to Tennessee should Roe v. Wade fall.
In the meantime Tennessee enacted other roadblocks: A 48-hour waiting period, mandatory counseling, a bar on the state's Affordable Care Act insurance coverage, a bar against telemedicine for medication abortions, a requirement that a woman undergo and see an ultrasound, a requirement that fetal remains be buried or cremated and a ban on abortions for sex or race selection or due to a genetic anomaly.
We have to question all this anguished determination.
Right-to-lifers will pull out the trite "sanctity of life" argument and call abortion "murder."
But too many of these same folks and Republican lawmakers have no problem waving aside rising gun deaths, as they continue to loosen gun laws. Nor do they have any problem screaming "no" to masks and vaccines that protect adults and children from COVID-19 once they are out of the womb. They have no problem cutting living children's insurance programs and food aid. Aren't those things about right to life, too?
In Tennessee, there were 12,140 abortions performed in 2017, the most recent year chronicled by Guttmacher Institute. More living, breathing Tennesseans died of COVID-19 — 13,693 — over the past year and a half.
America's abortion rate has been steadily falling since it peaked in the early 1980s at 29.3 abortions per 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 44. In 2017, the rate was 13.5, down 8% from 14.6 in 2014. The 2017 number — 862,320 abortions or 18% of pregnancies (excluding miscarriages) — at the time represented the lowest rate ever observed in the U.S.
Surveyors report that 59% of Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases. In Tennessee, even in 2019, 51% of us told Vanderbilt pollsters that Roe v. Wade's establishment of legalized abortion was the right decision, while 42% said it was not.
It's a shame state lawmakers haven't been listening.