On the night of May 2, news broke about a leaked draft of the Supreme Court majority opinion on the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case. The draft indicated that the Supreme Court plans to strike down Roe v. Wade, doing away with nearly 50 years of legal precedence, and allow states to decide whether to ban abortion at any stage of pregnancy. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 26 states are certain or likely to ban abortion if Roe v. Wade is overturned. Thirteen states have passed trigger bans, or laws that would ban abortion almost immediately after a Roe v. Wade reversal. Tennessee is one of them.
Tennessee’s trigger ban, passed in 2019, bans abortion in the state 30 days after the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade. The next year, during the onset of the pandemic, the Tennessee legislature passed an abortion ban that Gov. Bill Lee championed. This “6-24 week” ban passed on the morning of Juneteenth and would have become the most restrictive abortion ban in the country at the time. The ban is not currently in effect, but its passage shows that even during the onset of a global pandemic, the focus was on restricting abortion. We began to see more of these types of bills after Amendment 1, a ballot initiative in 2014. Through this, Tennessee amended its state constitution to remove any protections for abortion. Changing the state constitution emboldened legislators to enact stricter abortion restrictions.
At Healthy and Free Tennessee, we have been working to grow a movement for reproductive justice across race, class and gender, and understand abortion restrictions and bans as part of a larger web of reproductive oppression: the separation of families via the child welfare system; incarcerated pregnant people routinely being denied reproductive healthcare; and historical and contemporary instances of involuntary sterilization.
If Roe v. Wade is overturned and abortion becomes illegal in Tennessee, we will see an uptick in criminalization and surveillance. Although anti-abortion restrictions have included provisions that exempt pregnant people from facing criminal penalties, we know that pregnant people have been criminalized in Tennessee.
As recently as four years ago, police forces and district attorneys have used a 19th-century law to arrest and charge people for pregnancy loss. One of the most notable cases has been Anna Yocca’s arrest. In 2015, Yocca, a woman in Rutherford County was arrested and indicted on attempted first-degree murder charges. Her bond was set at $200,000, which she was unable to pay, and she remained in jail for over a year. In 2017, Yocca pleaded guilty to a lesser felony charge just to finally get out.
A new clinic
Choices announced Wednesday that it was opening a clinic in Carbondale, Ill., a three-hour drive from both Memphis and Nashville. According to Choices, the new facility will become the Southernmost abortion provider in Illinois, making it accessible to those in the Southeast. In 2019, Illinois passed a law guaranteeing reproductive rights in that state. The Carbondale location will also offer gender-affirming care. It’s scheduled to open in August.
Last month, we saw a woman in Texas arrested and initially charged with murder for self-managing her abortion. Last year, Texas passed a six-week abortion ban that allows civil penalties for people who help with abortion access after six weeks of pregnancy.
On May 5, Lee signed a measure to increase criminal penalties for providers who attempt to distribute medication abortion pills via mail. In 2012, a law went into effect that prohibited telehealth abortion or accessing abortion pills through the mail. Since then, someone seeking abortion pills can only access them in person at a clinic.
Inspired by Texas, in March, Tennessee saw HB2779. Tennessee’s version of the bill was more extreme and included a total abortion ban and would allow anyone in any state to bring forth a $10,000 lawsuit against a person who helped someone access abortion or who intended to help.
Luckily, HB2779 did not pass this year, but the plan is clear — to surveil people who experience pregnancy loss. In a post-Roe Tennessee, civil penalties will eventually turn to criminal penalties for self-managed abortion and there will be more criminal penalties for providers.
Roe v. Wade being overturned will have a significant impact on Tennesseans, especially poor Black and brown people. In a state that leads the country in rural hospital closures and with a Black maternal mortality rate that mirrors national trends, losing access to abortion will further push reproductive health care out of reach for marginalized communities. Disinformation will spread and increased criminalization will create a culture of fear, with people afraid to seek support for miscarriages. Clinics in Tennessee that provide abortion will be forced to stop providing this care.
Regardless of the push to outlaw abortion, we know that abortions will still happen. Medication abortion is highly effective and safe, and people will still self-manage their abortions.
In this critical moment, Healthy and Free Tennessee is deepening its commitment to the fight. Criminalization and policing are harmful to abortion as well as for parenthood and pregnancy. In the absence of Roe v. Wade protections, we will still work to build a world where reproductive health care decisions can be made without state interference, surveillance or criminalization.
Briana Perry is the co-executive director of Healthy and Free Tennessee.
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