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Federal court says Tennessee abortion providers can resume procedures, blocking the state’s order restricting abortions during the pandemic

04.17.2020 – (PRESS RELEASE) Today — at the request of the Center for Reproductive Rights, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee — a federal district court in Tennessee granted an emergency motion, allowing clinics to resume procedural abortions during the COVID-19 pandemic. The decision comes after Gov. Bill Lee issued a state order limiting “non-emergency” health care procedures. That order banned all abortions other than medication abortions (which involve taking pills and are only available until 11 weeks of pregnancy), despite leading national medical groups agreeing that abortion procedures are essential and time-sensitive.

In his decision, Judge Bernard Friedman wrote, “Moreover, abortion is a time-sensitive procedure. Delaying a woman’s access to abortion even by a matter of days can result in her having to undergo a lengthier and more complex procedure that involves progressively greater health risks, or can result in her losing the right to obtain an abortion altogether. Therefore, plaintiffs have demonstrated that enforcement of EO-25 causes them irreparable harm.”  

“Let’s be clear: Abortion is essential, it’s time-sensitive, and it cannot wait. Though this is good news for our patients today, we should never have had to go to court to defend their health care access. A pandemic is a time to expand health care, not an excuse to take it away,” said Alexis McGill Johnson, acting president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “Planned Parenthood is here for the patients and communities we serve in Tennessee, and we won’t back down when it comes to protecting our patients.”  

“Abortion is essential health care and today is a win for our patients who need and deserve access to that care,” said Ashley Coffield, president & CEO of Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi. “The priority of Planned Parenthood health centers has always been the health and safety of our patients, staff, and community. Since the onset of the pandemic, we have done our part to promote best practices that reduce the transmission of the coronavirus and conserve needed resources. I am grateful that the guidance in the executive order has been clarified so we may continue to do so while still meeting the needs of our patients.”

“Women in Tennessee can breathe a sigh of relief for now, knowing abortion procedures are available again in their home state,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights. “Today’s ruling in Tennessee joins those from courts across the country that have blocked these abuses of emergency powers. Women cannot wait until the pandemic is over to access abortion care, and we will continue fighting to make sure they can.” 

“This has been a very challenging and emotional time for our patients, and frankly heartbreaking for our staff,” said Rebecca Terrell, executive director of CHOICES Memphis Center for Reproductive Health. “We are so relieved that we can start rescheduling appointments for our patients and that they won’t be forced to travel out of state during this scary time.”  

“Forcing people to remain pregnant against their will is cruel and unsafe at any time, and all the more so during a pandemic,” said Julia Kaye, staff attorney at the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project. “This is a critical victory in the fight to keep abortion accessible in Tennessee, and we will not stop until the state’s harmful actions are blocked once and for all.” 

“The court’s decision today ensures that women in Tennessee can continue to make their own decisions about pregnancy and parenting based on what is best for their families,” said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee. “Abortion is time-sensitive essential health care and the COVID-19 crisis cannot be used to prevent women from obtaining abortions. Especially during a pandemic, it is crucial that women have access to a full range of health services, including abortion, to ensure their health and wellbeing.”

“We are pleased that the courts understand the essential medical necessity of time-sensitive abortion services and that delaying such care threatens people's health and well-being, especially during this pandemic crisis,” said Corinne Rovetti APRN-BC, co-director of the Knoxville Center for Reproductive Health. “Tennesseans needing abortion services will feel enormous relief knowing they will not be forced to carry a pregnancy to term, or attempt to travel out of state in order to access this essential care.”

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, many states have attempted to ban or limit abortion. In addition to Tennessee, lawsuits are ongoing in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Texas. Court decisions allowing abortion care to continue have been issued in AlabamaArkansas, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas.

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 Oklahoma’s COVID-19 ban, stating: “[B]anning abortion will not help address the pandemic. Most abortions do not require any hospital resources and use only minimal PPE. And banning abortion will actually increase use of those resources and contribute to spread of the virus.” 

Tennessee also bans the use of telehealth for medication abortion — a method 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, Bristol Regional Women’s Center, and Dr. Kimberly Looney. 

The decision is available here.   


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