A bill that would make abortion illegal should the U.S. Supreme Court overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision was passed by Tennessee’s Republican lawmakers and signed by Gov. Bill Lee in May.

This abortion “trigger ban” became a hallmark of conservative lawmakers after their attempt to pass a bill to ban abortions as soon as doctors could detect a fetal heartbeat was deferred to a summer study session. If the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, the aw would make abortion illegal in the state within 30 days.

Earlier this month, SisterReach CEO Cherisse Scott, whose organization fights for reproductive justice for women and girls of color, was the only black woman to testify before the Tennessee Senate Judiciary Committee against the abortion ban. Her mic was cut off in the middle of her testimony and the hearing was suspended.

The “Human Life Protection Act” only allows abortion if pregnancy would cause serious risk of death or substantial and irreversible impairment to a major bodily function. Any physician performing an abortion outside those parameters would face felony charges.

Such “trigger bans,” another form of many recent legislative attacks on women’s rights, have gained traction as states try to avoid defending unconstitutional abortion bans in court.

“If Roe v. Wade falls, it just means they wouldn’t have to go through a hoop (in Tennessee). They’ve already gone through it,” said Kathryn Leopard, assistant director of CHOICES, a reproductive health clinic that serves women in the Mid-South and beyond.

This new legislation poses problems for locals who seek reproductive health services, said Aimee Lewis, vice president of external affairs/chief development officer for Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi. “One thing we know is the impact of any abortion restrictions are predominately felt by those who already have barriers to healthcare, and that includes young women, women of color, people with disabilities, women with low incomes, folks in rural areas or who are undocumented.

“Banning abortion altogether just further jeopardizes their lives,” Lewis said. “The fact that Memphis is as poor as it is, and it’s predominately a black city, the people we serve here will be devastated if this law ever goes into effect.”

According to the Planned Parenthood Action Fund website, “in 1965, illegal abortions made up one-sixth of all pregnancy-related deaths — and that’s just according to official reports; doctors think the actual number was a lot higher. Prohibition of legal abortion particularly hurt people with low incomes; a survey conducted in the 1960s found that among women with low incomes in New York City who had obtained an abortion, eight in 10 had attempted a dangerous, self-induced procedure.”

In 2018, 37% of the Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi affiliates’ patients were African-American, 36% were white, 7% were Asian or Native American and 5% were Hispanic. The remaining patients identified as other. Out of 36,549 patient visits, 7,398 were for medication or surgical abortions.

Abortion in Tennessee is not covered by insurance, but Leopard said in 2018, 72% of women who came to CHOICES for abortions qualified for financial assistance. Also that year, nearly 60% of patients who received reproductive health care — from birth control to wellness — were black. About 25% were white and the remainder identified as Hispanic, Asian or other.

Here are five things you should know about Tennessee’s attempts to limit women’s reproductive choices:

  1. Tennessee lawmakers have, for now, tabled the “heartbeat bill,” fearing the legal ramifications of such legislation. Sen. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, brought to the floor a debate on bill, which would outlaw abortions as soon as a fetal heartbeat could be detected, or as early as six weeks — before many women even know they are pregnant. However, even anti-abortion supporters, such as Tennessee Right to Life, were afraid such a bill would draw criticism from the Supreme Court — hence, the passing of the trigger ban.
  2. Trigger bans have passed in six other states. Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kentucky and Arkansas have passed similar laws. Tennessee is the seventh state to pass a trigger ban, keeping with the copycat legislative trend that abounds regarding women’s reproductive rights. The Guttmacher Institute recently published an article examining what would happen if Roe v. Wade were overturned, in which it noted, “Several states even have laws declaring the state’s intent to ban abortion to whatever extent is permitted by the U.S. Constitution, making their desire to halt abortion access in the state clear.”
  3. Tennessee’s tabled heartbeat bill is a misnomer and an example of “copy and paste” legislation. The name “heartbeat bill” is incorrect, Leopard said. “What you can detect as early as six weeks is cardiac electric activity. It’s not a heartbeat. How people name their bills are crafted to get a response from the public.” From 2010 to 2017, 37 abortion-related copycat bills, written by groups like American Right to Life and Ohio-based Faith2Action and were introduced more than 400 times in various state legislatures. This year, nine states (Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio and Utah) passed laws to limit abortions.
  4. All eyes are on the Supreme Court at this point, including state lawmakers’. Even though state laws restricting or banning abortion get challenged in lower courts, states are growing more careful about how they word legislation. The “trigger ban” is a way around that. Landmark cases from Pennsylvania to Texas have continually upheld Roe v. Wade, overturning state law, but states have continued to pass laws, including trigger bans, that depend on a Supreme Court overturn of the landmark case. “Everybody is concerned because I think that, ultimately, it is a very real possibility that a case will make to the Supreme Court and the court may agree to take it up,” Leopard noted.
  5. If Roe v. Wade is overturned, the trigger law would make abortion illegal in Tennessee within 30 days, but local clinics are planning to keep their doors open. “We have made some really strategic decisions
    about expanding our model, so we will still be here to fight the legal battles and be here for our patients,” Leopard said. And the local Planned Parenthood affiliate also will continue to offer reproductive health services, and are looking to expand primary care, Lewis said. “Many patients who come to see us, they come to see their reproductive health provider, but that may be the only doctor they see all year.”

Have a story about how the attacks on women’s reproductive rights have affected you or someone you know? Contact us at mlk50@mlk50.com.


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