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Tennessee’s ban on abortion help for minors nears the finish line

A handful of abortion supporters set up camp in Nashville on a busy Broadway intersection.
Catherine Sweeney
A handful of abortion supporters set up camp in Nashville on a busy Broadway intersection.

A handful of abortion supporters set up camp on a busy Broadway intersection. They handed out stickers and postcards with information about medication abortions.

More: Tennessee could criminalize adults who help teens get abortions

It was also a protest. Just a few hours before, the Tennessee Senate passed SB 1971. It creates a Class C felony for helping minors get an abortion. Sentences could carry up to 15 years in prison and $10,000 in fines.

Nina Gurak is a board member for a statewide abortion fund, which takes donations and helps patients pay for travel, lodging and clinic costs.

“We have some real concerns about this bill and what it means for young people,” she said. “We know that when it comes to abortion access, sex education, young people are always the most impacted by these things.”

Violations could be straightforward, such as driving a teenager to a Carbondale abortion clinic for care. But critics raise concerns that some parts of the bill, such as the ban on “recruiting or harboring” minors, are more nebulous.

“This type of action — providing resources to young people who are on Broadway — could potentially be criminalized this time next year,” said state Rep. Aftyn Behn, a Democrat who represents the district containing Broadway.

On the Senate floor, the bill’s author, Sen. Paul Rose, laid out his argument.

“We’re not here to argue the position of the state on abortion; we’ve already decided that,” he said. “We’ve decided that abortion is only available to save the life of the mother. Whether you agree or disagree with that, all this bill does is say that unless the parent approves, gives permission, you cannot take a minor across the state line to get an abortion.”

Throughout the legislative process, supporters have said this bill and its House counterpart are simple. Rep. Jeremy Faison said during a January media briefing that opponents were unfairly complicating the bill.

“If you are a minor, under 18, nobody other than your parent or your legal guardian can take you out of this state to have an abortion,” he said. “This makes complete sense … That’s all the bill does.”

But critics note the policy could have unintended consequences. That includes Behn’s argument that it would crack down on communication and information for minors.

Another Democrat, Sen. Jeff Yarbro, voiced his own concerns on the Senate floor. He noted that just one day before this vote, the House considered a measure that would make child sexual abuse punishable by death. During that hearing, he said, they discussed that it’s common for a child’s abuser to be a family member.

“We are saying that if the father rapes his child, and the child gets pregnant, that the parents still have to consent for that child to work with any adult to terminate that pregnancy,” he said. “That’s what we’re saying. That’s what we’re making a law. There’s no exceptions for that. There’s no workaround.”

Tennessee’s abortion law doesn’t have exceptions for rape or incest, so a victim would have to go out of state.

Catherine Sweeney is WPLN’s health reporter. Before joining the station, she covered health for Oklahoma’s NPR member stations. That was her first job in public radio. Until then, she wrote about state and local government for newspapers in Oklahoma and Colorado. In her free time, she likes to cycle through hobbies, which include crochet, embroidery, baking, cooking and weightlifting.
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