Federal appeals court rules against Tennessee abortion bans

A federal appeals court on Friday affirmed a lower court’s decision to block a Tennessee measure signed into law last year that prohibits abortions after a “fetal heartbeat” is detected and prevents citing a Down syndrome or other medical diagnosis as justification for an abortion. 

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit said in its ruling that the district court’s previous decision on the legislation, known as House Bill 2263, “closely follows the precedents of our circuit and those  of  the  Supreme Court,  as  well  as  the  persuasive  opinions  of  other  circuits.”

“Although this circuit’s recent and alarming decisions have broadened the extent to which the government may impede a person’s constitutional right to choose whether to carry a pregnancy to term, the law remains clear that if a regulation is a substantial obstacle to a woman seeking an abortion, it is invalid,” Senior Judge Martha Craig Daughtrey wrote for the majority opinion. 

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​​"Any decision to overturn the district court’s finding of facts and well-reasoned decision would cast this court in the role of judicial activists,” the ruling added. 

Daughtrey was joined by Judge Karen Nelson Moore in affirming the Middle Tennessee District Judge William L. Campbell’s July 2020 decision to issue a preliminary injunction blocking the Tennessee law from taking effect. 

While appeals court Judge Amul R. Thapar joined the others in affirming the ruling, he dissented in part, arguing that the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade should not have been used as the method to decide abortion access. 

Thapar argued that the Supreme Court’s framework “cannot be justified under the original meaning of the Constitution. Nor can it be justified under a living constitutional approach.”

The Center for Reproductive Rights, Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other activist groups filed the lawsuit against the Tennessee law in June 2020 shortly after it was passed by the state Senate. 

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Rabia Muqaddam, staff attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement that the ruling Friday was “a huge win for pregnant people in Tennessee,” adding that the bans “would dangerously prevent patients from getting care, and politicians should not get to decide what is an acceptable reason for seeking an abortion.” 

Planned Parenthood Federation of America President and CEO Alexis McGill Johnson said that the appeals court ruling on the Tennessee law “brings some relief” following the Supreme Court’s decision not to block Texas’s so-called fetal heartbeat law from taking effect this month. 

“We know that abortion bans that prevent people from accessing care not only reinforce abortion stigma, but also disproportionately harm pregnant Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people,” she added. 

Samantha Fisher, a spokesperson for Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery (R), said in a statement to The Hill, "We are disappointed in the Sixth Circuit’s decision and will seek further review."