A federal judge halted the roll out of a controversial abortion law in Tennessee less than an hour after Gov. Bill Lee signed it into law.
Lee on Monday signed into law the state's wide-ranging abortion ban, legislation that will enact some of the nation's most restrictive abortion regulations.
He signed the bill around 11 a.m. By 11:45 a.m., the court ruled against the law.
Reproductive providers including Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union and other abortion rights groups filed a lawsuit against the bill in federal court in Nashville in June after the bill passed the Senate 23-5 in an early morning vote.
Abortion providers asked for the restraining order in an attempt to delay implementation of the ban while the case is before the courts.
They argue the bans are unconstitutional and contradict U.S. Supreme Court rulings in Roe V. Wade and other landmark cases.
District Judge William L. Campbell agreed Monday with the plaintiffs that if immediately implemented, the bill could cause a significant impact to Tennesseans seeking abortions, and the roll out should be halted while the case remains before the court.
"Plaintiffs have demonstrated they will suffer immediate and irreparable injury, harm, loss, or damage if injunctive relief is not granted pending a preliminary injunction hearing. The Act will immediately impact patients seeking abortions and imposes criminal sanctions on abortion providers. The time-sensitive nature of the procedure also weighs in favor of injunctive relief pending a preliminary injunction hearing," Campbell wrote in the order granting the restraining order.
Campbell also found the reverse to be true, that the public interest of the state will not be meaningfully harmed by preserving the status quo pending a hearing on the case.
In addition to banning abortions after the point a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which is as early as six weeks, the legislation, which takes effect immediately, also prohibits the procedure:
- If the doctor knows that the woman is seeking an abortion because of the child's sex or race;
- If the doctor knows the woman is seeking an abortion due to to a diagnosis of Down syndrome; and
- For juveniles in custody of the Department of Children's Services, including removing the current option to petition a judge for permission.
- While there is an exception to the restrictions if a woman's life is in danger, there are no exceptions for rape or incest.
The law makes it a Class C felony for a doctor to perform an abortion in any of those situations, and the physician must also:
Determine and inform the mother of the gestational age of the fetus;
- Allow the woman to hear the fetal heartbeat and explain the location of the unborn child within the uterus;
- Conduct an ultrasound and display the images to the mother; and
- Provide an explanation of the fetus's dimensions and which external body parts and internal organs are present and visible.
Under the law, abortion clinics will also be required to post a sign in the waiting area and in patient rooms informing people that it may be possible to reverse a chemical abortion. Failing to do so can result in a $10,000 fine for the clinic, though that portion of the new law would take effect Oct. 1. There remains no medical consensus on whether that reversal is possible.
Lee broadcast his signature of the measure on Facebook on Monday, saying the law is "arguably the most conservative, pro-life piece of legislation in the country."
"It's our responsibility to protect the most vulnerable in our community," the governor said as he signed the measure from inside his office. "With the signature of this bill, Tennessee is one of the most pro-life states in America."
Similar six-week bans have been struck down in Mississippi, Ohio and other states. In 2019, 25 abortion bans filed in 12 states remain blocked by litigation from rights groups including the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, as well as the Center for Reproductive Rights.
Abortion providers from across the state, including Memphis, Knoxville, Nashville and Mt. Juliet, and two physicians, filed the suit against Lee's new bill on behalf of themselves, their staff and patients.
The plaintiffs say the state already limits abortion to the fullest extent possible under the state Constitution, but that the new bans' reach would be unconstitutional.
Monday's order does not reflect a judge's ruling on the constitutionality of the law itself, just whether it can be implemented before a court rules.
“This is a victory for patients in Tennessee, but the fight is far from over. This sweeping abortion ban is part of a multi-layered effort to target people who already face systemic barriers to care because of racist and discriminatory policies,” said Ashley Coffield, president & CEO, Planned Parenthood Tennessee and North Mississippi, in an emailed statement. "As we continue to fight for all of our patients, we’re glad that today’s ruling will allow Tennesseans to continue to seek the health care they choose in their home state.”
The temporary restraining order went into effect at noon Monday and will expire at noon on July 27 pending a further court order.
A hearing on a preliminary injunction, which may stop the roll out for a longer period or reverse the restraining order, has been scheduled for July 24.
Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III was named as a defendant in the suit, alongside the district attorneys general of Davidson, Knox, Shelby and Wilson counties, the state health department director and the president of the board of medical examiners in their official capacities.
The new bans are not the only Tennessee limit on abortion before the federal courts.
This latest battle push against the state's efforts this year was supplemental to a long-running suit against Tennessee's required 48-hour waiting period before an abortion, which remains pending, as it has for five years, before a federal judge.
And SCOTUS last month struck down state restrictions on abortion clinics for the second time in four years, signaling that its conservative shift under President Donald Trump has not eliminated a deep split over abortion rights.
The court ruled 5-4 in late June that a Louisiana law requiring doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals would unduly burden women. Chief Justice John Roberts cast the deciding vote, though he did not sign on to the lead opinion endorsed by the court's four liberal justices.
The court reached the same conclusion in 2016 regarding a Texas law, but since then, Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh succeeded retired Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, giving abortion opponents hope for more substantial restrictions. Kavanaugh joined the dissenters in Monday's ruling.
Discrimination at heart of suit
Plaintiffs say that the new law would disproportionately affect the health care access of minority Tennesseans.
The restrictive ban limits access to medical care, including abortion, particularly for those struggling financially and those who already face significant barriers to health care — including people of color and people who live in rural areas, according to a statement from the ACLU of Tennessee.
“It’s past time for the politicians in our state get the message that they cannot insert themselves in someone else’s personal, private decision to end their pregnancy. We will continue to stand with our partners and fight back against politicians’ attacks on constitutionally-protected abortion care," said Hedy Weinberg, executive director, ACLU of Tennessee, in an emailed statement.
A request for comment has been sent to Lee's office.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Tennessee abortion ban: Judge halts new law signed by Gov. Bill Lee