Pregnant Tennesseans can currently access abortion in states nearby such as Florida, North Carolina, and Illinois while Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri, and Kentucky have near or complete abortion bans.

By V.S. Santoni

ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit newsroom, held a panel discussion on the current state of abortion rights in the United States since the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) overturned Roe v. Wade last summer. States such as Tennessee quickly moved to place restrictions and bans on abortion. The panel included Ziva Brandstetter, ProPublica senior editor, Jennifer Gollan, ProPublica freelance reporter and writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, Mary Ziegler, author and professor of law at the University of California and Nikki B. Zite, obstetrician gynecologist, professor and vice chair of education and advocacy at The University of Tennessee Medical Center.

According to ProPublica, the Republican-controlled congress quickly moved to enact the strictest abortion ban in the United States, with no exceptions for incest, rape, or the well-being of the pregnant person. All abortion clinics in Tennessee, the few that were still active, shuttered last summer. Tennesseans that need reproductive assistance must drive to Illinois or North Carolina to access safe, legal abortion services. 

 Tennessee’s abortion ban has had a chilling impact on both medical training and treatment. Zite notes “How close to death does she need to be?” in order to carry out an abortion. Doctors in Tennessee are allowed to use the life of pregnant person as a defense if they perform an abortion, but the lack of clarification has led some doctor’s to avoid performing abortions even if the person’s life is at risk. Zite further states,  “All of us carry malpractice insurance but nobody carries felony insurance. It doesn’t exist.” 

The impact of abortion restrictions on Tennessee includes loss of its knowledge base in the medical field. Zite mentioned that the state has lost a high-risk OB doctor from Chattanooga, a complex family planning provider from Nashville and all the physicians providing care in outpatient clinics to permissive states. She further remarked that states such as Wyoming and Tennessee are experiencing a “brain-drain” to more abortion-friendly locales. Tennessee medical schools are experiencing problems with how to teach about reproductive health in a post-Roe landscape. 

Ziegler went on to discuss fetal personhood laws and how they may impact reproductive rights in the long term. Fetal personhood discourse started in the 1960s among conservatives. Currently, Georgia’s abortion laws require certain forms of child support during pregnancy, and other states are passing various forms of fetal personhood laws.

Going forward, abortion will be a state’s issue, and abortion rights may turn on who controls a governorship or state legislature. Ziegler does not believe that the U.S. House will be able to pass a nationwide abortion ban, but access to the abortion pill will depend on who is president in 2024 and appoints the head of the Federal Drug Administration (FDA).