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Legal challenges to Tennessee’s trigger abortion ban are unlikely. Here’s why.

Demonstrators marched from the Tennessee State Capitol to the Metro Courthouse on Friday, June 24, 2022, to protest the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that ended federal abortion rights.
Rachel Iacovone
Demonstrators marched from the Tennessee State Capitol to the Metro Courthouse on Friday, June 24, 2022, to protest the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that ended federal abortion rights.

In other states, groups like the American Civil Liberties Union or abortion providers have brought lawsuits to try to stop or slow trigger abortion bans. But, we’re unlikely to see that type of challenge in Tennessee.

To understand why, we need to go back to the election of November 2014. At the top of the ballot was Amendment 1.

A yes vote on that amendment would make clear that the state’s constitution does not include abortion protections. It also gave power to the legislature to make decisions regarding abortion.

“Tennessee is an abortion destination,” a woman’s voice whispers in an ad campaign for Vote Yes on 1 that shows women crossing state lines at sunset. “Amendment 1 will restore the people’s right to enact protections for women and the unborn.”

The yes campaign even encouraged people to not vote for governor to game the vote count.

It was supported by many Republican lawmakers, including then Gov. Bill Haslam.

The Vote No campaign

On the other side, a no vote would keep that language out of the constitution and maintain that abortion was protected.

Groups like the Democratic Party and the ACLU worried that the amendment would give too much power to the legislature to decide what reproductive healthcare would look like in the state.

Their ads called out the other side for being misleading.

“If by ‘restoring the voice of Tennesseans,’ you mean stripping women of their health care decisions and turning them over to politicians,” the ad says. “Vote no on Amendment 1! It’s bad for Tennessee women.”

Democratic representative Gloria Johnson came out against Amendment 1. She says the way the measure was worded convinced a lot of people to vote against their own interests.

“The other side, the Yes On 1 folks, used disinformation and misinformation and confusion for so many folks who didn’t quite understand what they were casting a vote on,” Johnson says.

And because it was a midterm, voter turnout was low.

In the end, the amendment passed by about 70,000 votes, and the language was added to the state constitution.

The impact of Amendment 1

At the time, Amendment 1 didn’t immediately change much.

But, Johnson says, the conservatives pushing it were just setting the table.

“They went about passing this recognizing what their long game was,” she says. “It was all about getting to the point where the Supreme Court would reverse the decision and these things would fall into place at the state level.”

And now — about 8 years later — Amendment 1 is preventing a legal fight.

“That enshrined an anti-abortion statement in our state constitution,” Coffield says. “And, our legal counsel believes that there is no legal path to challenge the trigger law or the 6-week ban. Believe me, if there was a legal path in either state or federal court to challenge either of these laws, we would have.”

Their hands are tied.

So, despite 80% of Tennesseans supporting some type of abortion access, the trigger ban will go into effect on Aug. 25 without challenge in the courts.

Paige Pfleger covers criminal justice for WPLN News. Previously she has worked in Central Ohio at WOSU News, covering criminal justice and the addiction crisis, and was named Ohio's reporter of the year by the Associated Press in 2019. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR, The Washington Post, Marketplace, and PRI's The World, and she has worked in the newsrooms of The Tennessean, Michigan Radio, WHYY, Vox and NPR headquarters in DC.
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