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Emergency lawsuit filed against Lee’s ban on abortions amid coronavirus pandemic

Reproductive rights advocates have filed an emergency lawsuit challenging Gov. Bill Lee’s executive order that included abortions among banned non-emergency health procedures to ensure medical equipment and resources were reserved for the coronavirus response.

The federal lawsuit was filed by the Center for Reproductive Rights, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and the American Civil Liberties Union.

“This would be like any other non-essential procedure,” Lee told reporters last month when asked about the abortion ban. “It would be treated the same, and my expectation and belief and certainly my expectation is that no non-essential procedures would be performed in the state during the crisis and during this time we need all of those supplies to be used on the frontlines of protecting citizens.”

Attorney General Herbert Slatery’s office told the Associated Press at the time that he stands “ready to defend the actions of the executive branch in enforcing Executive Order 18.”

Lee has announced that his statewide measures regarding nonessential activity, including elective medical procedures, will be extended through the end of this month.

Here’s the full release from the groups challenging the abortion ban in court:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, a Tennessee order effectively banning abortion procedures in the state was challenged by the Center for Reproductive Rights, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee. The April 8 order, issued by Tennessee Governor Bill Lee in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, limits “non-emergency” health care procedures and bars people from getting a procedural abortion. Patients who are less than 11 weeks pregnant are still permitted to obtain medication abortions in the state.

Tennessee is not the first state to restrict abortion care during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Center for Reproductive Rights, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the ACLU, and other allies have filed lawsuits in multiple states. In Texas, most abortions are currently prohibited, and providers have asked the Supreme Court to intervene on an emergency basis. Court decisions allowing abortion care to continue have occurred in Alabama, Ohio and Oklahoma.
Statement from Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee:

“While we must all do our part to protect our communities from the spread of COVID-19, the actions our state government takes must be driven by science and public health, not politics. The COVID-19 crisis cannot be used to prevent women from obtaining abortions. Abortion is time sensitive and essential, and is not an elective procedure. You cannot just press pause on a pregnancy. During this pandemic, women must still have access to a full spectrum of reproductive health care, including abortion, to protect their health.”

Statement from Nancy Northup, President & CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights:

“We have filed this case to protect the constitutional rights of women in Tennessee who need access to essential, time-sensitive abortion care. All signs indicate that this crisis will not be over soon, and patients cannot wait until it is. Leading medical experts have been clear that COVID-19 responses should not ban abortion care.”

Statement from Ashley Coffield, President & CEO of Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi:

“My heart goes out to everyone who is facing unexpected healthcare and economic challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, including those seeking abortion. Abortion care cannot wait. Unlike some medical procedures, delays or additional barriers to care can make it impossible for patients to access safe, legal abortion. This will undoubtedly disproportionately impact people who are already vulnerable—black people and other communities of color, young people, the LGBTQ community, and those with low-incomes—just as we’re seeing it unfold now with COVID-19 infections, due to systemic disparities they face every day. These folks are making difficult decisions about how to pay their bills and care for their families during a pandemic—they should not be forced to continue a pregnancy against their will, too.”

Statement from Rebecca Terrell, Executive Director of CHOICES Memphis Center for Reproductive Health:

“It’s common sense that abortion is time sensitive. Our patients cannot wait until this pandemic is over. They are panicking and many have no idea when or if they’ll be able to have an abortion. Patients are now being forced to travel out of state, which will only harm efforts to contain the spread of the virus. There is no sense in denying them abortion care here in their own communities.”

Statement from Corinne Rovetti APRN-BC, co-director of the Knoxville Center for Reproductive Health:

“While we healthcare providers take COVID-19 concerns seriously, doing everything known to reduce the spread of the virus, we are also committed to ensuring that pregnant individuals during a worldwide pandemic can still access essential, time-sensitive and safe abortion care. Under normal circumstances, it is disturbing to find oneself unexpectedly pregnant when one is not financially, emotionally or otherwise ready to parent. These concerns become intensely magnified during the current pandemic crisis when people are already dealing with social and economic severity. Delaying access to care is not an option. Pregnant people need to be able to rely on care by compassionate and competent medical providers immediately.”

The lawsuit filed today argues that Tennessee’s order effectively bans abortion in the state for many women, violating Roe v. Wade and nearly 50 years of Supreme Court precedent protecting a woman’s right to liberty and autonomy under the Fourteenth Amendment. The lawsuit also argues that forcing women to travel out of state for abortion care, or to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term and give birth, will increase the risk of spreading COVID-19 and undermine the state’s asserted goal of preserving medical resources and limiting person-to-person encounters.

Leading medical organizations like the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and the American Medical Association (AMA) have opposed these attempts to restrict abortion during the pandemic. Both groups filed an amicus brief in the case challenging Texas’s COVID-19 abortion ban, stating: “Indeed, the Governor’s order is likely to increase, rather than decrease, burdens on hospitals and use of PPE. At the same time, it will severely impair essential health care for women, and it will place doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals in an untenable position by criminalizing necessary medical care.”

Tennessee also bans the use of telehealth for medication abortion — a tool that could greatly expand access and reduce in-person contact. Other abortion restrictions in Tennessee include: a mandatory 48-hour waiting period (which includes a requirement that patients make an additional, medically unnecessary trip to the clinic to receive state-mandated information); limits on when state and public insurance can cover abortion services; and a requirement that minors obtain parental consent.

This lawsuit was filed by the Center for Reproductive Rights, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the ACLU, the ACLU of Tennessee and pro-bono counsel Kramer Levin. Plaintiffs in the case are CHOICES Memphis Center for Reproductive Health, Knoxville Center for Reproductive Health, Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi, Adams & Boyle P.C, and Dr. Kimberly Looney.

The full complaint is available here: https://www.aclu-tn.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/230-01-Supplemental-Complaint.pdf

Planned Parenthood endorses Mackler in U.S. Senate race

The Planned Parenthood Action Fund has endorsed Democrat James Mackler in Tennessee’s U.S. Senate race.

“People across Tennessee want their elected officials to stand up to the Trump administration’s attacks that put our health, rights, and freedoms at risk,” Francie Hunt, the executive director of Tennessee Advocates for Planned Parenthood, said in a release. “James Mackler has been steadfast in his support for abortion rights and making the full range of women’s health services available to all.”

Diana Onyejiaka of Nashville and Marquita Bradshaw of Memphis have also announced they will seek the Democratic nomination in the race.

Leading Republican candidates Bill Hagerty and Manny Sethi are staunch opponents of abortion rights.

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