Court lets Tennessee 6-week abortion ban take effect

Friday, June 24, 2022, Vol. 46, No. 25

NASHVILLE (AP) — A federal court on Tuesday allowed Tennessee's ban on abortion as early as six weeks into pregnancy to take effect, citing the Supreme Court's decision last week to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion rights case.

The action by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals comes before Tennessee's other abortion ban, known as the so-called trigger ban, is set to restrict abortion almost entirely in less than a month. Both measures would make performing an abortion a felony and subject doctors to a maximum of 15 years in prison.

Republican state Attorney General Herbert Slatery filed an emergency motion on Friday to allow the state to begin implementing the six-week ban. GOP supermajorities in the Legislature passed the law in 2020 with Republican Gov. Bill Lee's backing, and it was almost immediately blocked in federal court.

Experts have noted that at six weeks, most women don't know they're pregnant.

"There are a lot of things that I am very passionate about and take very personally in this job that I have, but ... this was the most important thing that I could do as governor," Lee said while speaking virtually with anti-abortion religious leaders just hours after the Supreme Court announced its momentous ruling Friday.

The law only makes an exception when an abortion is necessary to prevent the woman's death or "serious risk of substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function." However, it specifies that a woman's mental health does not qualify for an exemption.

Planned Parenthood was not performing abortions at its facilities in Nashville and Memphis on Monday in anticipation of court action to unblock the six-week ban, said spokesperson Matt Anderson.

An even more restrictive ban is set to take in the coming weeks. Tennessee's trigger law - set to go into place 30 days after the end of Roe — will ban all abortions throughout the state, with essentially the same limited exceptions as the six-week ban. That law requires the attorney general to certify that Roe has been overturned. He hasn't done so yet, but has indicated he plans to do so quickly. The effective date is not tied to the timing of the attorney general's action, however.

Democratic lawmakers at the time attempted to amend the measure to allow exceptions for incest and rape -- including rape of a child -- but Republicans ultimately spiked such suggestions.

Bans pegged to the "fetal heartbeat" concept — such as Tennessee's six-week ban — have been signed into law in more than a dozen states. Supporters commonly argue that abortion as early as six weeks into pregnancy "stops a beating heart," but medical experts say those claims are false.

That's because at the point where advanced technology can detect that first flutter, as early as six weeks, the embryo isn't yet a fetus and it doesn't have a heart. An embryo is termed a fetus beginning in the 11th week of pregnancy, medical experts say.

The Supreme Court's ruling last week is likely to lead to abortion bans in roughly half of the states.

Additionally, in Tennessee, voters approved an amendment in 2014 declaring that the state's constitution doesn't protect or secure the right to an abortion or require funding for abortions.

Trigger laws, like Tennessee's 2019 version, are also being targeted by lawsuits in other states. In Louisiana on Monday, a state district judge in New Orleans, a liberal city in a conservative state, temporarily blocked enforcement of the state's trigger-law ban on abortion, after abortion rights activists argued that it is unclear. The ruling is in effect pending a July 8 hearing.

The 2020 law includes the six-week ban and bans at even fewer weeks, in the event that the Supreme Court did not fully overturn Roe v. Wade.