Republicans, Democrats split over high court’s abortion ruling
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision Friday to overturn Roe v. Wade tore the nation’s political garment down the middle as it sent abortion decisions back to the state level.
In Tennessee, abortion rights will be nearly outlawed within a month, setting off a celebration among Republicans who passed some of the most restrictive laws in the nation in anticipation the court would reverse the 50-year-old abortion ruling.
Gov. Bill Lee said the landmark Supreme Court decision marks the start of a “hopeful, new chapter” for the country.
“After years of heartfelt prayer and thoughtful policy, America has an historic opportunity to support women, children and strong families while reconciling the pain and loss caused by Roe v. Wade. We have spent years preparing for the possibility that authority would return to the states, and Tennessee’s laws will provide the maximum possible protection for both mother and child.”
The governor said the state will address the decision’s impact in the coming days.
The Republican-controlled Legislature passed four laws in 2019 setting the stage to ban abortions in Tennessee, including the trigger law that criminalizes performing or attempting to perform an abotion except in cases where the mother’s life is in danger or she could suffer permanent bodily injury.
We have spent years preparing for the possibility that authority would return to the states, and Tennessee’s laws will provide the maximum possible protection for both mother and child.
It is to take effect 30 days after the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade. The measure does not apply to women seeking abortions.
In addition, the Legislature passed an anti-discrimination law prohibiting abortion based on sex, race or cases of Down syndrome. Another law requires a physician to perform and ultrasound with images and an audible fetal heartbeat for the mother to view before an abortion can be performed.
One of the most restrictive laws, though, the fetal heartbeat measure, prohibits abortion as soon as a heartbeat is detected, usually at six weeks. That law is enjoined and subject to litigation.
Attorney General Herbert Slatery filed an emergency motion with the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals requesting it lift a stay on the six-week abortion banl enacted in 2020. If the appeals court agrees, abortion would be almost entirely inaccessible in Tennessee.
Democrats were visibly upset by the high court ruling, which many considered inevitable after a draft of the decision was leaked this spring.
“We knew this was coming, but it hurts to know that women have been legally denied the right to make decisions about their own bodies,” state Sen. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, said. “This is a decision that should be left to the woman, her family and her God. This decision is so personal that it should not be left to a court system.”
Democrat state Sen. Heidi Campbell of Nashville, a candidate for the 5th Congressional District seat, was clearly shaken by the ruling as she addressed the court’s decision at a Friday press conference.
“Our nightmare has come true. Our highest court has taken away the ability of women to control their own bodies and lives and turned that power over to politicians,” she said. “Make no mistake, this is not pro-life. This is codifying prejudice, and it’s anti-American.”
Campbell contended the selections of former President Donald Trump to the Supreme Court “turned back the clock” on women’s constitutional rights to point they no longer have control over their own bodies.
Though Republican lawmakers argue that life begins at conception, thus abortion bans save the lives of children, Campbell contended that claim doesn’t matter.
“This is not for a politician to decide,” she said. “What this is is misogyny.”
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, who voted for the trigger law and played a role in steering the measure through the General Assembly, called the decision “a huge win for the cause of life.”
“For too long, abortion policy in this nation has been controlled by the federal judiciary. Now, once again, the voters of the individual states will have the ability to make policy through democratic means,” he said. “In Tennessee, the voters have already made their views known through passage of a constitutional amendment that makes clear that no right to abortion is contained in our Constitution.”
Passage of the trigger law and comprehensive heartbeat bill prepared Tennessee for the court’s ruling, enabling pro-life voters to see their “policy preferences enshrined in law,” he said.
House Speaker Cameron Sexton did not respond to requests for comment, but the House Republican Caucus issued a statement saying, “Today’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling ends a 50-year-long national tragedy that deprived 63 million innocent human beings of life. For decades, Republicans have fought to advance and uphold the pro-life and pro-family values held by an overwhelming majority of Tennesseans. Today, we celebrate a momentous victory. We applaud the justices for their wisdom in recognizing a vulnerable baby still in its mother’s womb is a precious life worthy of protection. Tennessee House Republicans continue our unwavering commitment to fight for families and defend the defenseless.”
Democrats, however, said Tennessee’s law will require girls and women to carry pregnancies to term even in cases of rape and incest, forcing girls to give birth to half-siblings.
Sen. Jeff Yarbro and Rep. Vincent Dixie, both Nashville Democrats, pointed out men dominated the decisions to overturn abortion at the Supreme Court level and in the Legislature.
Yarbro noted that one high court justice said the court should revisit matters such as same-sex marriage and contraception, based on the ruling it rendered.
“Everything has been placed on the table by today’s radical Supreme Court opinion,” Yarbro said.
Dixie pointed out the U.S. Supreme Court has served as the “backstop for justice and rationale,” but no longer. “The black robes have turned to red robes,” he said. “That is not where our country needs to go.”
They also said the ruling clears the way for lawmakers to outlaw common forms of birth control, same-sex marriage and mixed-race marriages.
Dr. Katrina Green, a Nashville emergency room physician, pointed out that once the attorney general triggers the law in Tennessee, she and other doctors won’t be able to refer women for abortions, even in cases of ectopic pregnancies in which an egg is fertilized outside the fallopian tube and in pre-term pregnancies, both of which can kill the mother.
Nashville Dr. Dana Cardin, an oncologist, said the state laws could put her in a difficult situation, as well, as she treats cancer patients who are pregnant. In many cases, the drugs used to treat cancer are not safe for pregnancies.
“They have to make very difficult decisions about what to do next,” Cardin said.
Another physician, Dr. Mary Jane Brown noted, “Now I am forced to choose between my oath to preserve and protect life … or to follow an unconscionable law.”
Tennessee Right to Life, in contrast, was thrilled with the outcome. Executive Director Stacy Dunn called the court’s ruling a “monumental, historic decision that will save the lives of millions of unborn children across the nation.”
“We look forward to Tennessee laws reflecting our Tennessee values,” she said, noting the group will continue to press for laws that prohibit abortions.
Under the court’s ruling, women won’t be prosecuted for having an abortion, but physicians and organizations that provide abortions will face felonies.
Dunn pointed out that Justice Samuel Alito called Roe v. Wade an “egregious decision” and opined that, similar to Plessy v. Ferguson, which allowed Black students to “separate but equal” from their white counterparts, it was not “deeply rooted” in the nation’s tradition.
We look forward to Tennessee laws reflecting our Tennessee values. Science proves we can no longer deny the humanity of the child.
Dunn argued that medical technology shows fetal heartbeats can be detected at 18 days and brain waves at 45 days.
“Science proves we can no longer deny the humanity of the unborn child,” she said.
Will Brewer, legislative liaison for Tennessee Right to Life, said the group does not think the court’s ruling will lead to decisions that overturn same-sex marriage, the use of contraception or mixed-race marriages.
Brewer said the majority of the court was very clear in its opinion that because Roe v. Wade deals with the “fundamental interest in human life” that it can be overturned. Cases such as Obergefell, however, do not deal with a “life-or death situation,” Brewer said.
Healthy and Free Tennessee, which was “enraged but unsurprised” at the ruling, pointed out that for the time being, abortions are accessible in the state. That will change in about a month.
“This decision will not only force Tennessee clinics to stop providing necessary care, but also push Tennesseans seeking abortion care to travel out of state to receive the care they need. Abortion bans are state-sanctioned violence,” said Anna Carella, executive director of Healthy and Free Tennessee.
Carella said she expects anti-abortion groups and politicians to continue to legislation that will criminalize abortion providers and punish people for the outcome of their pregnancies.
Black and brown people, as well those who are disabled or use substances are more likely to be targeted with government surveillance, investigation and control, Carella said.