Tennessee’s Extreme Abortion Ban Blocked Minutes After Being Signed Into Law

The law prohibits abortions as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, when many people do not know they are pregnant.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) signs an extreme abortion ban into law on Facebook Live.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) signs an extreme abortion ban into law on Facebook Live.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) signed an extreme bill into law on Monday banning abortion as early as six weeks into pregnancy ― before many people even know they are pregnant.

Lee signed the legislation on Facebook Live, calling it a historic moment and characterizing the bill as “the most conservative, pro-life” piece of legislation in the country. “Life is precious and everything that is precious is worth protecting; we know that in Tennessee,” he said.

The ban was in effect for less than an hour before a federal court blocked it.

The legislation, approved by the state legislature in the middle of the night on June 19, was the first abortion ban to be passed since the coronavirus pandemic began. It prohibits abortions once a doctor can detect cardiac activity in an embryo, which typically happens at around six weeks into a pregnancy. While anti-abortion groups call such measures “fetal heartbeat” bans, medical professionals say that is a misleading and inaccurate term. Legal challenges have also blocked similar legislation in other states.

Tennessee’s law also prohibits the procedure if the doctor is aware the decision is motivated by the race or sex of the fetus, or a diagnosis of Down syndrome.

The Center for Reproductive Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee filed an emergency lawsuit challenging the ban in court as soon as the legislature passed it.

On Monday, a federal district court in Tennessee issued a temporary restraining order to block the law from going into effect. U.S. District Judge William Campbell wrote that the court was “bound by the Supreme Court holdings prohibiting undue burdens on the availability of pre-viability abortions.”

Tennessee’s ban is blatantly unconstitutional, Jessica Sklarsky, senior staff attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement. “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,” she said. “Tennessee should stop attacking reproductive healthcare and instead work to implement policies that will help marginalized communities. This law does the exact opposite.”

The abortion ban comes a few months after Lee attempted to halt abortion services in the state due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Tennessee was one of 12 states that classified abortion as a nonessential medical procedure, arguing that abortion clinics should stop seeing patients to conserve personal protective equipment for coronavirus cases. The state was sued and the ban was overturned.

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