TLAW: Statement on Dobbs 

Whatever our individual personal beliefs about abortion or constitutional interpretation, as the only statewide lawyers’ association for women, the Tennessee Lawyers’ Association for Women (TLAW) expresses concerns and questions about the recent decision of the United States Supreme Court and its potential impacts on women.  One of the missions of TLAW is “to provide education on issues affecting women attorneys and on legal issues affecting women.”  This statement is in furtherance of that mission.

The United States Supreme Court’s recent pronouncement in Dobbs, overruling Roe vs. Wade, holds that the United States Constitution confers no right to abortion for women in our nation; instead, it reverts authority to regulate abortion to the individual States.

In anticipation of this action, our Tennessee General Assembly enacted Tennessee’s “Heartbeat Law” (Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 39-15-214, et seq.) and triggered enactment of the Tennessee Human Life Protection Act (Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-15-213) to take effect in the event that Roe was overruled.  With last week’s ruling by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, the Tennessee “Heartbeat Law” immediately bans abortion for any fetus that has a heartbeat or after 6 weeks’ gestation.  Within the coming weeks, the Human Life Protection Act will take effect, prohibiting the termination of a pregnancy after fertilization, whether by instrument, medicine, drug, or any other substance or device.  Criminal abortion is a Class C felony for anyone who performs or attempts to perform it.  Licensed physicians may assert an affirmative defense, only if the procedure is performed to prevent the death or serious risk of substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function to the woman.  The statute expressly disallows abortion if the reason is related to maternal mental health.  Likewise, there is no exception for rape or incest, or for the viability or developmental deficiencies of the fetus.

The Court’s decision in Dobbs, coupled with Tennessee’s “Heartbeat Law” and the Human Life Protection Act, will have many wide-reaching effects on women in our state – some known and some unknown.  It is undisputed that women and girls in Tennessee will no longer have the same right to make medical and health-related decisions over their own bodies.  The lives of women and girls who are the victims of rape or incest will be impacted when they are mandated to carry pregnancies forced upon them by their assailants.  The statute offers no consideration for the health or viability of the fetus, which will unquestionably impact the mother, the child and the family.

  There are unknowns as to how this decision and future decisions and statutes may impact the availability and use of contraception, including emergency contraceptives; fertility treatments; and criminal and civil risks to healthcare providers, just to name a few.  Women of lower socio-economic status and those suffering from physical or mental disabilities will bear a disproportionate impact of this decision and its aftermath, increasing the feminization of poverty in our state.  How this decision and its sequela will impact women lawyers professionally remains to be determined but will likely compound existing needs in the profession such as protected parenting leave, childcare support, and mental health care among others.

TLAW is committed to providing education to its members and the public-at-large around these critical issues.  For that purpose, TLAW will be launching a 3-part CLE series to discuss the legal, professional, societal, and individual impact of this ruling and our State’s legislative actions in the coming months.

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