Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s “hope and expectation” is that there will be no “elective” abortions performed in the state under an executive order that bars non-essential medical procedures to free up protective equipment for hospitals treating the coronavirus, his spokesman said Wednesday.
Officials in Ohio, Mississippi and Texas have likewise interpreted executive orders that limit non-essential medical procedures to bar many abortions.
“The intent of this Executive Order is to gain greater access to (personal protective equipment),” Lee spokesman Gillum Ferguson said in a statement. “Gov. Lee believes elective abortions aren’t essential procedures and given the state of PPE in Tennessee and across the country his hope and expectation would be that those procedures not take place during this crisis.”
Lee, a Republican, on Monday ordered a halt to non-emergency dental work and nonessential hospital and surgical outpatient procedures, but the order did not specifically mention abortion. The order is effective until April 13. It does not specify penalties for noncompliance.
Attorney General Herbert Slatery’s office stands “ready to defend the actions of the executive branch in enforcing Executive Order 18,” spokeswoman Samantha Fisher said in a statement.
The order defines a non-essential procedure as one “that is not necessary to address a medical emergency or to preserve the health and safety of a patient, as determined by a licensed medical provider.”
Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi declined to comment through a spokesman.
Lee has made one of his legislative priorities this year a bill that would ban most abortions once a fetal heartbeat can be detected. That’s about six weeks into pregnancy, before many women know they’re pregnant.
On Wednesday, the state reported more than 780 cases of the virus, and the death total increased from two to three.
Lee also said his administration is talking with law enforcement about what actions might be needed when people don’t abide by executive orders limiting social gatherings, among other requirements. However, Lee said he hopes Tennessee doesn’t have to get into the enforcement business.
“Where there’s a disregard for life in this state, we will enforce,” Lee said.
Also on Wednesday, the Tennessee Supreme Court issued an order extending the suspension of most in-person judicial proceedings until April 30. A previous order suspended them until March 31. The new order is similar to the previous order with a few exceptions. They include an instruction to judges not to take action on evictions and displacements except in exceptional circumstances. The new order also instructs judges to submit a plan to reduce local jail populations by Monday.
“Reduction in local jail populations is a critical component in controlling the spread of COVID-19,” Chief Justice Jeff Bivins said in a news release. “There are low-risk, non-violent offenders who can safely be released and supervised by other means to reduce local jail populations. Judges, law enforcement, and attorneys must work together to identify and create an action plan to address this issue.”
A group led by former Davidson County public defender Dawn Deaner is asking the court to go even further. In a petition filed on Tuesday, Deaner’s Choosing Justice Initiative and other groups asked the Tennessee Supreme Court to order the release of a number of prisoners to help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.
The prisoners they would like to see released include those who are at an elevated risk of developing a serious illness because of age or health, all pregnant inmates, people who are being held in jail pretrial because they cannot afford bail or fees, and children jailed for delinquency. The releases are requested unless the state can demonstrate the individuals would endanger the community.
They also want to reduce admissions to local jails, many of which are over capacity, by issuing citations and summons in lieu of arrest for all qualifying individuals.
“Like a cruise ship or a nursing home, jails and prisons are an environment in which COVID-19 can easily gain a foothold and spread rapidly with devastating consequences,” the petition states.
Additionally, TSA confirmed one of its officers who last worked a checkpoint at Nashville International Airport on March 18 has tested positive for COVID-19. The airport closed its north security checkpoint entrance until further notice, but did not say if it was due to the TSA worker testing positive.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.