Pro-life advocates and the state expressed their disappointment with a federal court decision Oct. 14 that invalidated a Tennessee law requiring a 48-hour waiting period before an abortion.
Senior federal judge Bernard Friedman ruled from Detroit, Mich., the law is unconstitutional and permanently blocked the state from enforcing a waiting period. The 2015 law “substantially burdens” women who want an abortion in Tennessee and is “gratuitously demeaning” to those who have decided to undergo the procedure, Friedman wrote.
The state legislature approved the waiting period after a 2014 referendum granted power to the law-making body to act on abortion.
Friedman’s ruling marked the second time in three months a federal court has prevented enforcement of a Tennessee pro-life law. In late July, federal judge William Campbell issued a preliminary injunction against a new law that prohibits an abortion when a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which can be as early as six weeks. The measure also bans an abortion when the doctor knows the request for the procedure is driven by the race, sex or health/disability diagnosis of a child.
Elizabeth Graham, vice president of operations and life initiatives for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said, “Tennessee leaders are trying to enact simple measures that protect life and, once more, a judge has stepped in to shield abortion from being touched. It is frustrating that reasonable attempts like this continue to be blocked.
“That said, we will continue to support efforts in states like Tennessee to pass laws seeking to ensure the health and safety of women and children from a profit-seeking abortion industry and speak to the culture about the sacred dignity of life,“ she told Baptist Press in written comments.
Brian Harris, president of Tennessee Right to Life, said, “Not only is this decision a slap at Tennessee’s abortion-vulnerable women, it is an affront to Tennessee’s voters who passed a 2014 constitutional amendment in which allowing a short waiting period was a key factor.”
Samantha Fisher of the state attorney general’s office told The Tennessean newspaper, “We are disappointed in the ruling that comes a full year after the trial and five years after the law was passed by our elected representatives. We are evaluating next steps, including appealing the order” to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
A majority of the 50 states have enacted laws that require pre-abortion waiting periods of either 18, 24, 48 or 72 hours. Of the 29 states that have passed such mandates, courts now have permanently blocked the laws of two, Florida and Tennessee, according to the National Right to Life Committee.
In his 136-page opinion, Friedman, who received the case by special designation, said the state failed to show the 48-hour waiting period promotes its stated interests of “protecting fetal life or benefitting women’s mental and emotional health.”
The law “clearly imposes an undue burden on women’s right to obtain a pre-viability abortion in Tennessee and has no countervailing benefit,” he wrote.
No evidence exists that women who do not return to a clinic after the waiting period is complete for an abortion “fail to do so because [the law] causes them to change their minds about having an abortion,” Friedman wrote. He also said the mental and emotional health of women does not benefit because the waiting period “does nothing to increase the decisional certainty among women” who are considering an abortion.
The abortion providers who challenged the law “have demonstrated conclusively that the statute causes increased wait times, imposes logistical and financial burdens, subjects patients to increased medical risks, and stigmatizes and demeans women,” Friedman wrote. They also have shown the law “undermines the doctor-patient relationship and imposes operational and financial burdens on abortion providers.”
Friedman spent about 95 pages describing the testimony and findings of fact from the September 2019 trial. In the case of each witness for the abortion providers, the judge said he found his or her testimony “to be fully credible and gives it great weight.”
He found the testimony in support of the law by Priscilla Coleman, professor of human development and family studies at Bowling Green State University (Ohio), unconvincing. Coleman said 25 to 40 percent of women are undecided when they arrive at an abortion clinic and increased information and time are beneficial to them.