Governor Lee Signs Abortion Ban Minutes Before Federal Court Blocks Its Implementation

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A federal district court in Tennessee today issued a temporary restraining order, blocking a law signed by Gov. Bill Lee earlier today that bans abortion at nearly every stage of pregnancy and for reasons related to race, gender, or fetal diagnosis.

The emergency restraining order was granted at the request of the Center for Reproductive Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and the ACLU of Tennessee; they filed a lawsuit to block the law immediately after it passed the state legislature on June 19. The ban was in effect for less than an hour today before being blocked by the court.

Part of the law that was blocked today prohibits patients from obtaining an abortion based on their reason for seeking the procedure, including the potential for a Down syndrome diagnosis or the sex or race of the fetus. These “reason bans” inflict harm by peddling stigma around abortions and stereotypes of Black and Brown communities, Asian Americans, and people with disabilities. Abortion patients — like all patients — should have the right to make private medical decisions with their families and their doctors, without interference from politicians.

The restraining order comes just weeks after the Supreme Court struck down a Louisiana law in June Medical Services v. Russo, which would have devastated abortion access in that state and could have affected abortion access across the country.

“This is a critical win for people in Tennessee who will not lose access to their constitutional right to abortion,” said Anjali Dalal, senior staff attorney at the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project. “But we cannot lose sight of the big picture: that it took a court order to stop these politicians from pursuing a ruthless anti-abortion agenda in the middle of a pandemic, passing a ban that would disproportionately harm Black and brown people. We would urge Tennessee’s elected officials to abandon this destructive, shameful effort and return to the job they were hired for: serving their constituents.”

“Today’s important decision protects Tennesseans’ ability to access the medical care they need, including abortion. Especially in the midst of a global health crisis, lawmakers should realize that their continued attacks on access to abortion are particularly harmful to those struggling financially and those who already face significant barriers to health care – including people of color and people who live in rural areas,” said Hedy Weinberg, executive director, ACLU of Tennessee. “It’s past time for the politicians in our state get the message that they cannot insert themselves in someone else’s personal, private decision to end their pregnancy. We will continue to stand with our partners and fight back against politicians’ attacks on constitutionally-protected abortion care.”

Last year alone, 25 abortion bans were enacted in 12 states, including: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Ohio, Tennessee, and Utah. The Center for Reproductive Rights, the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and other organizations responded by filing litigation to ensure abortion remains legal in all 50 states. To date, the groups’ lawsuits have stopped these illegal bans from depriving pregnant people of their constitutional right to abortion.

“Banning abortion is blatantly unconstitutional, and the lawmakers who passed this law are well aware,” said Jessica Sklarsky, senior staff attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights. “It is unconscionable that — in the middle of a public health crisis and a national reckoning on systemic racism — lawmakers are focused on trying to eliminate access to abortion. Abortion is an essential health service, and this law clearly violates the constitutional rights of patients and disproportionately harms communities of color. Tennessee should stop attacking reproductive healthcare and instead work to implement policies that will help marginalized communities. This law does the exact opposite.”

“This is a victory for patients in Tennessee, but the fight is far from over. This sweeping abortion ban is part of a multi-layered effort to target people who already face systemic barriers to care because of racist and discriminatory policies,” said Ashley Coffield, president & CEO, Planned Parenthood Tennessee and North Mississippi. “If the law sounds familiar, it’s because Gov. Lee already tried banning abortion earlier this year using fear around the pandemic as an excuse to carry out his dangerous political agenda. As we continue to fight for all of our patients, we’re glad that today’s ruling will allow Tennesseans to continue to seek the health care they choose in their home state.”

Tennessee has several additional abortion restrictions on the books, including a ban on the use of telehealth for medication abortion; a mandatory 48-hour waiting period (which includes a requirement that forces patients to delay care by adding a medically unnecessary trip to the clinic to receive state-mandated information); limits on when state and public insurance can cover abortion services; and a requirement that minors obtain parental consent. The Center for Reproductive Rights and Planned Parenthood are litigating another case in the state challenging the 48-hour waiting period.

Just three months ago, Gov. Lee attempted to ban abortion procedures during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic by labeling abortion care as non-essential, despite opposition from leading national medical groups. In April, that attempt was blocked in court after a lawsuit was filed by the same organizations filing today’s case.

The case was filed by the Center for Reproductive Rights, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the ACLU of Tennessee on behalf of the Memphis Center for Reproductive Health, Planned Parenthood Tennessee and North Mississippi, Knoxville Center for Reproductive Health, carafem, and two abortion providers in Tennessee.

The ruling can be found here: https://www.aclu.org/legal-document/temporary-restraining-order-blocking-tennessee-abortion-ban

This release can be found online here: https://www.aclu-tn.org/tn-abortion-ban-tro-decision/