Another provision of TN abortion law blocked in federal court

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at a press conference announcing his sweeping bill seeking to ban most Tennessee abortions in Nashville on Jan. 23, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Another provision of Tennessee’s sweeping anti-abortion law has been blocked in federal court. U.S. District Judge Chip Campbell, a Trump appointee, put a hold on a requirement that would have gone into effect on Thursday to require patients be informed about “abortion reversal.” He previously blocked other elements of the law seeking to ban most abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected.

The plaintiffs argued the law would violate abortion providers’ First Amendment rights by requiring them to convey “scientifically unsupported and misleading information.” Campbell said he was unable to fully assess competing expert opinions about whether such reversals are possible, but said he plans to hear what expert witnesses have to say on the matter during a hearing scheduled for Oct. 13.

But Campbell said he did not have to wait to find one aspect of the law misleading: A requirement for the state Department of Health to post information about the reversal of chemical abortions on its website within 90 days of the law going into effect, meaning there would be up to three-month delay between when such signage had to be posted and when information must be made available. No details had yet been posted on the Health Department site as of Tuesday, Campbell said.

Here’s a release from the American Civil Libertarian Union, which sued to block to the law:

NASHVILLE — Yesterday, a federal district court in Tennessee temporarily blocked from going into effect a law that would have forced providers to share false and misleading information with patients about the potential to “reverse” a medication abortion — an unproven and politically-motivated claim that has no basis in medical research. By passing a law that would force doctors to share misinformation not backed up by credible science, politicians are trying to steer patients to unproven, experimental medical treatments, and erode trust between patients and their providers. 

Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk, one of the defendant state officials charged with enforcing this harmful law, recently filed a declaration with the court saying that he “will not enforce” the new law because it is “unconstitutional” and “criminal law must not be used by the State to exercise control over a woman’s body.” Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery tried to block Funk’s filing.

The law was set to go into effect on Oct. 1, 2020. If it had, providers would have been forced to share this misinformation with patients at least 48 hours in advance of providing a medication abortion, and again after the patient had taken the first medication, as well as post misleading signs with large, bold print informing patients about medication abortion “reversal.” Under the law, providers who did not comply would have faced criminal prosecution for a Class E felony, punishable by one to six years in prison. Facilities also faced a $10,000 fine per day for providing abortions while failing to display the required, misleading signage.

Statement from Hedy Weinberg, executive director for the ACLU of Tennessee: “This decision is a victory for patients, who rightfully expect factual and clear information from their personal doctors. Politicians should not be allowed to force physicians to provide false and misleading information to their patients. We will continue to stand strong against our governor’s continued attempts to interfere in patients’ right to access safe reproductive health care.”

Statement from Andrew Beck, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project: “It shouldn’t be controversial to expect the information you receive from a medical professional to be accurate and based in science. The intent of the law is clear: to shame, humiliate, and deceive people who have decided to have an abortion. We stand in relief with Tennessee patients who will be spared in the immediate term from this medically baseless, plainly unconstitutional law — and we will continue to fight until it is struck down for good.”

Statement from Ashley Coffield, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi: “This law was one dangerous part of an abortion ban bill Tennessee politicians pushed through in the dead of night, as our state was grappling with the beginnings of a pandemic and a reckoning with racial injustice in our communities. After all, this is how anti-abortion politicians carry out the Trump administration’s agenda against our rights and freedoms — without public input and against the will of the people. Today is a victory in blocking another failed policy peddled by Gov. Lee, but the fight has just begun. Every person deserves access to medically accurate information and we will continue standing on the side of truth and science, for our patients.”

Statement from Rebecca Terrell, Executive Director at Memphis Center for Reproductive Health (CHOICES): “Our patients depend on us for honest, evidence-based care. We’re glad we aren’t forced to deceive them with quackery – at least not yet.”

Statement from Nancy Northup, president & CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights: “This law is a blatant free speech violation, forcing doctors to provide their patients with misleading and false information about abortion. We will keep fighting this law until it is struck down for good. There is no credible scientific evidence to support the claim that medication abortion can be reversed. Forcing doctors to say otherwise puts patients at risk.”

Since 2015, politicians across the country have passed similar laws trying to force providers to promote the medically inaccurate idea that a medication abortion can be “reversed” — a debunked claim based on junk science peddled by anti-abortion researchers. Similar abortion “reversal” laws have been opposed by leading medical groups, including the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American College for Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). Last year, courts blocked similar laws in North Dakota and Oklahoma. No one benefits from forcing providers to share misinformation with patients, who rely on their providers to help them make informed medical decisions. 
Earlier this year, Gov. Lee attempted to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic to ban most abortions, despite opposition from leading national medical groups. In April, that attempt was blocked in court after a lawsuit was filed by the same organizations litigating today’s case.

Tennessee has numerous additional abortion restrictions on the books, including a ban on the use of telehealth for medication abortion; a mandatory 48-hour waiting period (which includes a requirement that forces patients to delay care by adding a medically unnecessary trip to the clinic to receive state-mandated information); limits on when private and public insurance can cover abortion services; and a requirement that minors obtain parental consent. 

The lawsuit is being brought by Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi, Knoxville Center for Reproductive Health, Memphis Center for Reproductive Health (“CHOICES”), and carafem — represented by Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the Center for Reproductive Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the ACLU of Tennessee.

Original complaint.


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