A federal appeals court ruled Friday that Tennessee could not enforce an abortion restriction that prohibits abortions based on race, gender, or a Down syndrome diagnosis. The court also upheld a prior ruling that prohibited the state from enforcing its version of a “heartbeat bill,” which prohibits abortion after a preborn child’s heartbeat is detected, usually around six weeks gestation (four weeks post-fertilization), though the heart begins beating between just 16 and 22 days post-fertilization.
The laws were both part of pro-life legislation signed by Governor Bill Lee last year. Almost immediately after it was signed, U.S. District Judge William Campbell issued a temporary restraining order which blocked many of the bill’s provisions, most notably its ban on abortions after a heartbeat. He also initially blocked the portion of the law that prevented abortions based on age, race, or disability. However, in November 2020 the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals said the state could enforce the portion of the law that prohibits abortions due to a diagnosis of Down syndrome while the courts continued to hear the case. With Friday’s ruling, the state once again is not able to prevent these discriminatory abortions.
The Court did not appear to let similar recent litigation influence its ruling. “We take note that state legislatures recently have passed more anti-abortion regulations than perhaps at any other time in this country’s history. However, this development is not a signal to the courts to change course,” wrote Senior Judge Martha Craig Daughtrey, according to ABC News. “It is, in fact, just the opposite. The judiciary exists as a check on majoritarian rule.”
According to the Tennesseean, Daughtrey also wrote, “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.”
The Associated Press reports that Samantha Fisher, spokesperson for State Attorney General Herbert Slatery, said the office is “disappointed” in the ruling and it plans to review the case.
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