Lawmakers pushed Tennessee gov to toughen virus abortion ban
When Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee ordered a halt to non-emergency medical services last month due to the coronavirus, GOP lawmakers peppered his office with the same question: What about abortion?
The Republican governor publicly insisted he intended to restrict abortions with the order. But emails obtained by The Associated Press through public records requests show conservative lawmakers and anti-abortion advocates pressed him to make the order explicit, saying clinics were still performing the procedure.
“Will the nonprofits that serve the abortion determined and abortion-minded women be allowed to continue their ministry during this period, especially if the abortions are allowed to be done?” GOP Rep. Debra Moody wrote to Lee’s office on March 31.
Moody asked if Lee’s administration had explored how other states addressed the “apparent way around” the order she said Tennessee abortion providers were using.
Ultimately, Lee signed a tougher directive that abortion providers said banned surgical abortions. Those providers challenged the policy, citing the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court precedent, and a federal judge blocked Tennessee’s abortion ban last week. The decision is headed for appeal, where some states have had similar bans restored.
The emails illustrate how the fight over abortion has continued to rage into pandemic times in several Republican-dominant states, where officials have sought to halt abortion in the name of fighting the coronavirus.
Those bans have ended up in court in Tennessee, Texas, Ohio, Oklahoma and Alabama, with abortion rights advocates arguing the longer an abortion is delayed, the greater chance of complications.
Lee’s first executive order banning nonessential medical services came on March 23, with exclusions for “pregnancy-related visits and procedures.” However, Lee’s office told reporters two days later his “hope and expectation” was that “elective” abortions wouldn’t take place during the pandemic.
A top Tennessee anti-abortion group laid out the political scenario at hand, telling a Lee attorney the sweeping fetal heartbeat abortion ban that the governor proposed this year faces uncertain times. The legislation had not yet passed when lawmakers recessed due to virus concerns. They hope to reconvene in June.
“We’re getting a lot of frustrated calls from supporters and legislators asking why Governor Lee has not yet suspended elective abortions when he has suspended so many other elective procedures?” Will Brewer, a lobbyist for Tennessee Right to Life, said in a March 25 email to Lee’s deputy counsel, Clark Milner. “I think such a mandate would have an even greater effect on saving lives and would garner greater support from the Governor’s base than even his omnibus bill, which is at risk of not even getting passed this year should this crisis be prolonged.”
In an April 1 email to lawmakers, Brewer noted the Knoxville Center for Reproductive Health planned to reopen April 1 on a limited basis and resume abortion services, per the clinic’s March 27 Facebook post. He urged lawmakers to contact Lee’s office to let him know abortions were still occurring and to push for enforcement.
Some Republicans already had.
Rep. Chris Todd blasted the “murderous acts” of a clinic staying open.
“I am one of those that has been proud to tell people that one of the executive orders included the closure of nonessential clinics like these,” Todd wrote on March 30. “I’m sure you have the department and hopefully others on top of this to make sure their doors are closed immediately. Let me know if it this is not the case.”
Other Republicans reached out on the issue in late March and early April, including Reps. Bryan Terry, Robin Smith and Matthew Hill; and Sens. Janice Bowling, Jack Johnson, Mike Bell and Paul Rose, emails show.
Some forwarded emails from the anti-abortion Confidential Care Mobile Ministry, whose executive director wrote that Lee hadn’t ordered clinics shutdown, and said she had reported some facilities in Memphis to the city and state.
Without waiting for his order to expire, Lee issued a stricter version on April 8.
The new directive banned until April 30 procedures that weren’t necessary “to provide life-sustaining treatment, to prevent death or risk of substantial impairment of a major bodily function, or to prevent rapid deterioration or serious adverse consequences to a patient’s physical condition.”
Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey informed health care providers of possible Class A misdemeanor penalties and discipline by medical boards.
Milner texted another Lee staffer that the order expanded “to more specifically cover all procedures that are elective and non-urgent and can be delayed until after the Order without risking serious adverse consequences to a patient.”
The federal court challenge followed. The judge ruled Friday that Tennessee didn’t show banning abortions would save any appreciable amount of personal protective equipment to help battle the coronavirus — the governor’s stated intent.
According to the documents, a handful of people also left messages urging Lee to keep abortion services open during the pandemic. Most messages, however, wanted abortion stopped.
Lee’s office denied the AP an undisclosed amount of records, claiming exemption from the state’s public records law.
(PHOTO: Associated Press)