It's harder than ever to get an abortion in Tennessee

Tennessee now ranks among the states with the strictest abortion laws in the country

By Nick Lingerfelt

Published October 23, 2017 4:58AM (EDT)


This feature is part of Salon's Young Americans initiative, showcasing emerging journalists reporting from America's red states. Read more Young Americans stories.

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In a move that foreshadowed a current national debate, the Tennessee state legislature passed a law earlier this year prohibiting abortion after 20 weeks gestational age, except in cases of medical emergency. Tennessee now ranks among the states with the strictest abortion laws in the country.

The law requires a test for viability and gestational age before a doctor could perform an abortion and would subject doctors who violate the law to a Class C felony charge, which can carry a sentence of up to 15 years in prison. However, the law does not say what the test would look like.

“Viability is not defined, nor is there any such test that can be administered,” said Aimee Lewis, vice president of external affairs for Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region.

Only 1 percent of women have abortions after 20 weeks, and these often involve rare and severe fetal abnormalities, which are most often only detectable at that time and are serious risks to the woman’s health, Lewis said.

“This law is not about protecting a woman’s health ‘sufficiently’ or otherwise," Lewis said. “It’s about restricting a woman’s access to safe and legal abortion.”

The 1 percent of women who have abortions after 20 weeks usually had something go unforeseeably wrong, Lewis said.

“In these situations, it is crucial for women to have the opportunity to think through their options based on their unique situation in consultation with people they trust, including their physicians, loved ones, counselors, religious leaders and others,” Lewis said.

In the Supreme Court’s 1973 abortion cases, it decided states may restrict or ban abortions after fetal viability, except if pregnancy could harm a woman’s life or physical or mental health. However, a physician gets to decide what constitutes “health” and when a fetus is viable. Under this decision, states also do not have to require additional physicians to confirm the attending physician’s judgement if the woman’s life or health is at risk in cases of risk to the woman’s health.

“This ban was already described by Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery as ‘constitutionally suspect’ because it puts a doctor acting in good faith at risk for criminal and civil liability,” Lewis said. “This law is bad for women and should be concerning for doctors.”

The law will hurt women and families, Lewis said.

“While women should not have to justify their personal medical decisions, the reality is that abortion later in pregnancy is very rare and often happens under complex circumstances — the kind of situations where a woman and her doctor need every medical option available,” Lewis said.

Tennessee’s state legislature has enacted laws creating barriers to family planning, sexual health education and Medicaid expansion, which would provide health care to more than 200,000 of Tennessee’s citizens.

“Over the last decade, Tennessee’s state legislature has demonstrated unique and abiding hostility to improving public health outcomes, and this is especially true for sexual and reproductive health,” Lewis said. “These barriers to care and information are exacerbated for people of color who experience remarkable disparities in access to quality, affordable health care and worse health outcomes.”

Despite constant opposition from lawmakers, Planned Parenthood persists by continuing to operate in states where they face staunch opposition.

“In spite of sustained political opposition, Planned Parenthood is a fearless voice in the movement for reproductive rights and are unrelenting in our advocacy for access to safe and legal abortion, contraception and sex education for all,” Lewis said.

Nick Lingerfelt

Nick Lingerfelt attends the University of Memphis in the great city of Memphis, Tennessee. He is participating as a Young American at Salon to let some residents of coastal and "blue" states know their values are not as different from people in the heartland of America's as they might think. Also, Tennessee often gets written off as a solid "red" state, but the fastest-growing cities in this state, Memphis and Nashville, are liberal bastions with surprisingly diverse populations.

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