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The strictest abortion ban in the nation targets communities of color

Tina Vasquez July 3rd, 2020
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As pro-choice advocates in Louisiana breathe a sigh of relief after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the June Medical Services v. Russo case last week, Tennessee is gearing up for a fight against one of the most restrictive anti-abortion bills in the country—one that advocates say targets people of color.

Used as a bargaining chip while negotiating the state budget, the bill was passed in the early morning hours of June 19 when the Tennessee Senate made a last-minute deal with the state House to pass a six-week abortion ban, which is unconstitutional because it makes it medically and logistically impossible for most people to determine that they are pregnant and arrange for abortion care.

In a statement, Rebecca Terrell, executive director of CHOICES, said Tennessee Republican legislators displayed a “truly stunning degree of hypocrisy” in passing the bill. 

“[T]hey refused to fund $6 million in prenatal care for TennCare recipients, yet were willing to spend millions of the state’s dollars to defend clearly unconstitutional abortion bans,” Terrell said. “These decisions are quite the opposite of ‘pro-life.’ These decisions are anti-life, anti-women, anti-Black people, anti-poor, anti-children, anti-reason.”

“Asian American women may stop seeking medical services”

According to Sung Yeon Choimorrow, the executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, there is a portion of the Tennessee bill that could lead to the racial profiling of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities.

Tennessee’s new bill includes a “sex selective” abortion ban, meaning that a doctor cannot provide abortion care if they believe a patient is seeking care based on the sex of the fetus.

“There is no evidence that sex selective abortions are happening in the U.S. The language and the rhetoric around sex-selective abortion bans are highly racialized,” Choimorrow said. “Asian American women may stop seeking medical services because they are afraid of being criminalized, which can threaten their life and their pregnancy because of this hostile, racist, and sexist bill. It reveals this underlying assumption that women of color cannot be trusted to make reasonable decisions about their own bodies.”

According to Guttmacher, state legislatures adopt abortion restrictions that target specific populations of women and pregnancy conditions by banning abortion on the basis of sex selection, race selection, or genetic anomaly. These bans “stigmatize pregnant people of color who seek abortions by questioning the motivation behind their abortion decision,” Guttmacher reported.

Historically, Guttmacher reports, “sex selection has occurred most frequently in countries where there is a strong gender bias that manifests in a preference for sons. Evidence from the global context indicates that sex-selective abortion bans do not work to prevent sex selection, because these bans do nothing to challenge the phenomenon of son preference or its underlying causes and they are difficult to enforce.”

Choimorrow told Prism the first time she saw evidence of this type of racial profiling in health care was in the 2015 case of Purvi Patel, the Indian American woman from Indiana who was convicted of feticide and felony neglect of a dependent for a self-induced abortion. Her conviction was eventually vacated and she was released from custody.

Among reproductive rights, health, and justice advocates, much of the focus of Patel’s case centered on decriminalizing self-managed abortion and medication abortion. Choimorrow said what went missing from that framing and analysis was that around the time of Patel’s case, then-governor of Indiana Mike Pence was “gunning to pass” a sex selective abortion ban. He eventually succeeded, and it was later declared unconstitutional.

“I always thought there was a connection between the ban and Purvi Patel’s case. The rhetoric used by people like Mike Pence was that the U.S. had to ‘protect girl babies,’ or that people from other countries were ‘bringing this practice with them.’ I believe Purvi Patel was racially profiled and that is why the hospital called the police on her instead of giving her the health care she was there to receive,” Choimorrow said.

Criminalizing reproductive health care

In addition to banning abortions as early as six weeks, Tennessee’s 60-page bill provides no exceptions for rape or incest and also bans abortion care for juveniles in custody of the Department of Children's Services, removing the current option to petition a judge for permission. Violating these restrictions would be a Class C felony.

The coalition Healthy and Free Tennessee, which works to promote sexual health and reproductive freedom across the state, said in a statement the bill’s covert passage was “unconscionable.”

“In this moment where the Movement for Black Lives Matter and its supporters are fighting to move away from policing, criminalization, prisons, and punishment, we are increasing criminal penalties for reproductive health care,” the statement said.

The legislation included an amendment that threatens clinics with a $10,000 fine if they do not post a sign in the waiting room and in patient rooms informing people that it may be possible to reverse medication abortion.

“Abortion reversal” is regularly pushed by anti-choice advocates for ideological reasons; however, it is not rooted in science or facts—and it’s dangerous. As Hayley Farless reported for Rewire.News, the first-ever randomized clinical study on the medically unproven “abortion reversal” had to end early after the principal investigator “discovered risk of ‘serious blood loss’ when patients stop in the middle of the medication abortion protocol.”

Tennessee’s so-called “heartbeat bill” is part of a growing tide of anti-abortion bills passed by Republican-majority legislatures in an attempt to prompt the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 case that guarantees the constitutional right to abortion. These bans are unconstitutional because they attempt to ban abortion before the point at which a fetus is viable.

Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union, and other reproductive health, rights, and justice groups have already filed a lawsuit against Tennessee’s bill. However, if the courts strike down the six-week ban, the legislation goes on to automatically enact abortion bans at eight, 10, 12, 15, 18, 20, 21, 22, 23, and 24 weeks of gestation.

In their statement, Healthy and Free Tennessee referred to the bill as a “human rights violation” that further cements the country’s history of medical mistreatment against marginalized people, “especially Black women and women of color.”

“This country was founded on reproductive oppression with the killing of Indigenous people and the experimentation and exploitation of enslaved Black women,” said Briana Perry, co-executive director of Healthy and Free Tennessee. “That legacy continues with this abortion ban. We know that Black and other communities of color, who continue to be marginalized, will be disproportionately impacted by this legislation.”


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