Federal Judge Blocks Tennessee Abortion Restrictions

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee speaks at the White House on April 30. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

(CN) — A federal judge Friday temporarily blocked the Tennessee law passed last month that imposes criminal sanctions for performing some abortions, such as when a woman seeks an abortion because the fetus was diagnosed with Down syndrome.

U.S. District Judge William Campbell Jr., a Donald Trump appointee, wrote the abortion providers bringing the lawsuit are likely to succeed and portions of the statute drafted by Tennessee lawmakers were vague.

“Neither Defendants nor the public have a strong interest in enforcing an unconstitutional statute,” Campbell wrote.

In mid-June, attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Reproductive Rights and Planned Parenthood Federation of America filed the lawsuit on behalf of a group of Tennessee abortion providers. Filed in the federal court in Nashville, it challenged the law even before the governor signed it.

The abortion providers asked the judge to prevent the state from enforcing two provisions. The first provision declares an abortion provider commits a Class C felony if they perform an abortion at six weeks gestational age or older.

The second provision criminalizes the procedure if a woman is seeking an abortion because of the fetus’ race or sex or if a test came back and showed the fetus was possibly diagnosed with Down syndrome.

Tennessee, defending the statute, filed with the court declarations made by doctors saying about two out of three of fetuses diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted in the United States according to recent estimates.

Quoting from The Federalist No. 78 about the limits placed on the judiciary to simply judge, Campbell launched into his 42-page memorandum by explaining he was merely applying federal rules regarding civil procedure and a precedent the Supreme Court established three decades ago in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Penn. v. Casey regarding anti-abortion laws that place an “undue burden” on the right to the procedure.

Campbell did not consider whether or not the provision prohibiting abortion carried out because of the fetus’ sex, race or a Down syndrome diagnosis “operates as an unconstitutional ban on pre-viability abortions.” The Sixth Circuit, which hears cases appealed out of Tennessee, was considering a similar case out of Ohio, Campbell said.

Instead, Campbell said the statute was so vague that it was unconstitutional.

“Although Defendants state their belief that the statute would not impose liability where a patient simply makes reference to a prohibited reason, their ‘belief’ is not supported by the imprecise language of the statute, nor does it guarantee individual prosecutors will agree with their interpretation,” Campbell wrote. “When a law threatens criminal sanctions, such vague provisions and potential varied interpretations cannot stand.”

Thomas Castelli, legal director for the ACLU of Tennessee, said the judge’s ruling preserves the status quo, which allows access to abortion.

“People should be able to make their own decisions about whether and when to become a parent without politicians interfering,” Castelli said in a statement. “This unconstitutional law disproportionately harms people of color and people who live in rural areas — groups that already face significant barriers to accessing health care in our state.”

Tennessee’s law comes at a time when state legislatures across the country advanced anti-abortion legislation. In 2019, a dozen states including Tennessee passed 25 abortion bans, according to the ACLU.

The Tennessee Attorney’s General office did not immediately return a request for comment.

Friday’s order stays in effect until the court can rule on the matter again.

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