ACLU Challenges Tennessee City’s Swift Ban on Surgical Abortion

(CN) – Two days after an abortion clinic opened its doors March 1 in Mount Juliet, a small city near Nashville, the city’s commission held a first reading of an amendment to its zoning ordinances that placed strong restrictions on where surgical abortions could be performed in the city.

The meeting lasted less than five minutes.

A little more than a month later the city commission voted unanimously to adopt the ordinance the abortion clinic described as a “complete ban” on clinics that perform the procedure that employs “gentle suction to empty the contents of the uterus.” 

Now carafem, the abortion clinic in Mount Juliet, is putting the constitutionality of that ordinance to the test.

Represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, carafem filed a lawsuit Wednesday saying the ordinance was an arbitrary and discriminatory zoning decision that violates due process and equal protection rights.

“The Ordinance does not protect the health, safety, or welfare of Mt. Juliet citizens, and serves no legitimate governmental interest,” the ACLU said in its 25-page complaint. “It simply prohibits carafem from providing surgical abortions, in turn unduly burdening Tennesseans attempting to access abortion.”

Carafem named the City of Mount Juliet and some of its officials as defendants: City Manager Kenny Martin, Chief of Police James Hambrick and Zoning Administrator Jennifer Hamblen.

The abortion provider asked the court to declare the city’s ordinance unconstitutional and order the city to be prohibited from enforcing it. 

According to the suit, carafem operates clinics in Atlanta, Chicago and Washington, D.C. It opened a clinic in Mount Juliet because access to abortion in the city was limited.

The complaint pointed to testimony given during a federal trial held in September that women in Tennessee could have to wait weeks before obtaining an abortion.

The clinic that had been operated by Planned Parenthood in Nashville stopped offering abortion services between December 2018 and March 2019 because of “apparent staffing limitations.”  In January 2019, about 5% of carafem’s clients in its Atlanta clinic had traveled from Tennessee.

Carafem opened for business March 1 in Mount Juliet, leasing a space next to other medical clinics, and started offering medication abortion while announcing plans to offer surgical abortions, too.

“Within 48 hours of opening, carafem was completely booked for the next 30 days,” the complaint states.

Meanwhile, Wilson County Right to Life began praying on the sidewalk outside the clinic. City commissioners said they were disgusted by the news of the clinic coming to the city.

In a Facebook post March 1, commissioner Ray Justice said the clinic set up in the city “under the cover of darkness.”

“We are pursuing every possible legal option to stop this ‘organization’ from being in Mt. Juliet,” Justice wrote. “To a man, our city commission is Christian Conservative and will not just ‘let this happen’ without fighting.”

City commissioners directed questions to the city’s attorney, who did not respond to a request for comment. 

The city’s amendment the its zoning ordinances stipulated no clinic offering surgical abortion could be located 1,000 feet from any school, church, residential lot or park.

It was effectively a prohibition, according to the complaint.

The Mount Juliet Planning Commission reviewed the proposal less than three weeks later and the commission passed the ordinance unanimously April 8.

“At each of these meetings, officials made no statements regarding the purpose or intent of the Ordinance apart from the self-evident purpose of blocking access to abortion, heard no public comments or evidence regarding any constitutionally permissible benefits that would be promoted by the Ordinance, and introduced no other testimony or other evidence that supported the passage of the Ordinance,” the complaint said.

The clinic said that because of the ordinance it has had to turn away patients seeking surgical abortion, women who have been pregnant for more than 11 weeks and women who may experience complications if they obtained an abortion through medication.

“Mt. Juliet politicians passed this targeted ordinance solely to interfere with a woman’s personal decision-making. We cannot allow those who want to put abortion completely out of reach to implement another law that stands in the way of necessary, constitutionally-protected health care,” ACLU of Tennessee Legal Director Thomas H. Castelli said in a statement. 

This lawsuit comes as the Tennessee General Assembly is considering a bill to ban abortion at the time a pregnancy is able to be detected.

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