Three judge panel hears arguments over ‘unconstitutionally vague’ exceptions to abortion ban

Published 3:39 pm Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

By Anita Wadhwani

Tennessee Lookout

A year after Tennessee lawmakers carved out narrow exceptions to Tennessee’s strict abortion ban, a three-judge panel heard competing arguments over whether to throw out a lawsuit seeking to clarify those exceptions or to temporarily block the state from enforcing the law as written.

Email newsletter signup

During Thursday’s day-long hearing in Nashville, attorneys representing seven women and two doctors argued the law’s medical exception language is so “unconstitutionally vague” that doctors are denying or delaying abortions even in situations that pose grave danger to a pregnant woman’s life or health.

All of the women plaintiffs had wanted pregnancies but then were denied abortions when they faced dire medical situations, the lawsuit said.

Doctors across the state “are uncertain about the scope of the medical exception,” said Linda Goldstein, an attorney with the Center for Reproductive Rights. Goldstein argued for a temporary block of the medical exception rules and a declaration from the judges that a medical exception language must be clarified to clearly protect the life of the pregnant person.

Doctors who violate Tennessee’s abortion laws are subject to arrest, the loss of their medical license and face up to 15 years in prison and $10,000 in fines if convicted of performing an illegal abortion.

“It is certainly not hard to imagine – or wholly speculative – that a physician providing abortion in Tennessee will be prosecuted,” she said. “If we are going to send someone to prison for 15 years, they have to know that they are doing something that the statute prohibits.”

Whitney Hermandorfer, director of strategic litigation for the Tennessee Attorney General, argued the lawsuit, first filed in September 2022, should be dismissed entirely without proceeding to trial.

Hermandorfer argued that the plaintiffs lacked legal standing to file suit, in part because five of the women plaintiffs were refused abortions before the medical exception rules were enacted.

State officials named in the lawsuit – which include the Tennessee Attorney General, all members of Tennessee boards that license and regulate physicians and the state of Tennessee – are entitled to sovereign immunity, Hermandorfer said.

Hermandorfer also argued that doctors who filed suit “very much don’t want government scrutiny on their decisions.”

Abortion, she said, has been regulated in Tennessee since the 1880’s and deserves special scrutiny because “this is the only medical procedure that terminates a life.”

The panel, which includes Chancellor Patricia Head Moskal, Judge Sandra Donaghy and Chancellor Kasey Cullbreath, gave no timeline on when they would issue a written decision.