One June night after 12:30 a.m., Iowa lawmakers mandated a 24-hour waiting period for patients seeking abortion care. A week later at 5:30 a.m., Tennessee lawmakers banned the procedure once a fetal heartbeat is detected.
In the coming days, the Supreme Court is expected to rule in a case that could have significant consequences for abortion access in the United States. But even if the Court upholds women’s access to reproductive healthcare in June Medical Services, LLC v. Russo, a pair of state-level bills passed in recent weeks highlight Republicans’ continued war on abortion rights.
In Tennessee, lawmakers held a midnight session last week and passed a bill banning abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, which can occur as early as six weeks and before many women even know they’re pregnant.
Republicans control both chambers in the state. The Tennessee House passed the bill 68-17, and the Senate later approved the bill, 23-5. The state’s notoriously anti-abortion Republican governor, Bill Lee, is expected to sign it into law.
Similar six-week bans have been struck down in Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio, and other states, and the Center for Reproductive Rights, the ACLU, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and the ACLU of Tennessee quickly filed a lawsuit on Friday seeking to block the Tennessee law, which they blasted as “unconstitutional,” “cruel,” and an “opportunistic attack” on reproductive rights.
Tennessee’s bill also:
- bans abortion in cases where the doctor knows the woman is seeking an abortion because of the child’s sex, race, or a diagnosis of Down syndrome.
- requires doctors to inform pregnant women of the gestational age, conduct an ultrasound and display the images, and check for a fetal heartbeat and play it out loud before proceeding, though the woman can opt not to view the images or hear the heartbeat.
While the legislation makes exceptions to protect the life of the woman, it does not do so in cases of rape or incest. Any abortion provider found to violate the law could face up to 15 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Hedy Weinberg, ACLU of Tennessee executive director, called the bill “unacceptable” and accused lawmakers of passing it in “a game of political maneuvering” without regard for those who will be denied access to care they need, including abortion.
“Lack of access to abortion care particularly harms those struggling financially and those who already face significant barriers to health care, including people of color, people with limited incomes, rural people, and young people,” Weinberg said in a statement. “Politicians should not be deciding what is best for women and certainly not making reproductive health care decisions for them.”
Other advocates agree the bill is likely to harm marginalized communities, particularly women of color, and tied the measure to the nation’s ongoing reckoning with racism.
“This country was founded on reproductive oppression with the killing of Indigenous people and the experimentation and exploitation of enslaved Black women. That legacy continues with this abortion ban,” Briana Perry, co-executive of Healthy and Free Tennessee, told COURIER. “We know that Black and other communities of color, who continue to be marginalized, will be disproportionately impacted by this legislation.”
The racial impact of the legislation is undeniable. Black and Latino women suffer higher rates of poverty, are more likely to lack access to comprehensive reproductive healthcare, and face barriers to contraception and other family health services. Consequently, they obtain a disproportionate percentage of abortions relative to white women—meaning, women of color are more likely to endure the consequences associated with abortion bans and restrictions.
In 2015, Black women in Tennessee received 49% of abortions in the state, even though they make up 17% of the population, making them uniquely vulnerable to restrictive laws. But the legislation will make things more difficult for all women in the state, who already struggled with strict abortion rules. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of Tennessee women live in counties with no abortion clinic, according to the Guttmacher Institute, and the state is rife with other restrictions.
Another State, Another Rush to Legislate Family Planning
In Iowa earlier this month, lawmakers similarly used the cover of night to pass legislation requiring women wait 24 hours after an initial appointment before receiving abortion care. The law also requires that women be given the opportunity to view an ultrasound scan of the fetus during that appointment and receive information about abortion and other options, including adoption.
The state Senate approved the measure at 5:30 a.m. on June 14, just hours after the House added the waiting period clause to an existing bill addressing a court’s ability to take a child off life support.
The effort drew swift backlash from state Democrats and reproductive rights advocates who blasted Republicans for rushing through legislation.
“The interesting thing about it, it’s a 24-hour waiting period. And you didn’t even give women 24 hours’ notice that you would be stripping them of their rights,” said Sen. Janet Petersen (D-Des Moines).
Erin Davison-Rippey, Iowa Executive Director for Planned Parenthood North Central States, also criticized Republicans for their middle-of-the-night effort.
“Iowa Republicans did not have the votes this session to change our state constitution and take away the right to abortion. So instead, in the dead of night and without any public input, these leaders spent the final hours of the 2020 legislative session pushing through a 24-hour waiting period for Iowans who are getting an abortion,” Davison-Rippey said in a statement. “We at Planned Parenthood see firsthand the burden on our patients when politicians create arbitrary barriers to safe, legal abortion, like this new waiting period. This law is really about shaming Iowans and making it harder to access abortion.”
Gov. Kim Reynolds, an anti-abortion Republican, is expected to sign the bill into law—even though a similar, 72-hour waiting period was ruled unconstituional by the state supreme court in 2018.
Eighteen states have requirements for women to wait 24 hours before receiving an abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Indiana has an 18-hour waiting period, and eight other states have waiting periods of either 48 or 72 hours. These waiting periods require women to make two trips to a health care provider in order to obtain an abortion. This can pose a burden for women—particularly poor women and women of color—who need to take time off work or find babysitters, who live far from abortion providers, who lack adequate transportation and must make travel arrangements, or who lack the financial resources.
Planned Parenthood is reportedly considering a lawsuit against what they view as an “unconscionable” law that puts Iowa lawmakers’ own ideological beliefs ahead of their constituents’ health.
“This Is Blatantly Unconstitutional”
These twin efforts mark just the latest attempts by Republicans to pass restrictive abortion laws with the aim of forcing a challenge to the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Roe v. Wade.
In 2019, 25 abortion bans were enacted in 12 states, and many others approved less comprehensive but still detrimental restrictions. Due to ongoing lawsuits, none of the bans are in effect yet, and abortion remains legal in all 50 states. At least 11 Republican-led states have also been accused of taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to try to further restrict access to abortion. Most of those restrictions were blocked by court order or were temporary and have since expired, but in Arkansas, residents are currently required to test negative for COVID-19 in the 72 hours prior to receiving abortion.
Iowa and Tennessee were also among the states to try to halt abortions during the pandemic, though their attempts were challenged and ultimately blocked. But both states are now doubling down on their efforts to restrict access to women’s health care.
In Tennessee, lawmakers are clearly aware of the controversy surrounding their bill and have included a so-called “ladder” provision in the legislation in case it is struck down by courts. If the six-week ban is ultimately blocked, that would automatically trigger a new abortion ban at eight weeks. If the eight-week ban is similarly struck down, it would automatically lead to a 12-week ban. These automatic triggers continue apace at 15, 18, 20, 21, 22, 23, and 24 weeks of gestation, as the Tennessean reported.
The ACLU of Tennessee, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and Planned Parenthood have made clear they intend to fight these efforts to the bitter end.
“This is blatantly unconstitutional, and I am confident that once challenged in court, this legislation will go on the same legal trash heap as the abortion bans that have been struck down in other states,” Ashley Coffield, president & CEO, Planned Parenthood Tennessee and North Mississippi, said in a statement. “We’ll continue fighting these egregious attacks on our patients’ rights—no matter what.”