abortion protest

Protestors gathered in Nashville in May following the release of a draft U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning abortion rights protections.

The clock has started ticking on a near-total abortion ban in Tennessee.

With the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday overruling Roe v. Wade, the next step is for Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery to notify the Tennessee Code Commission and identify what will be the official 30th day post-Roe. That is when the state’s trigger ban will officially go into effect.

The Human Life Protection Act, which passed in 2019, allows only the risk of death or major irreversible impairment of the mother as a defense for getting an abortion.

While the ban does not allow for prosecution of the woman upon whom an abortion is performed, anyone who performs or attempts to perform an abortion is now at risk of being charged with a class C felony. It is unclear how this law will affect self-managed abortions.

The Metro Nashville Police Department declined to comment on how it would enforce the law, while Davidson County District Attorney Glenn Funk stands by his 2020 statement that he would not prosecute anyone who receives or performs an abortion. Even so, Slatery could petition the state Supreme Court to appoint a special prosecutor for such cases.

In Tennessee, most abortions occur at designated clinics rather than hospitals or OB/GYN offices.

Dr. Edward Hills, professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Meharry Medical College, was a resident in the time before Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973. While he doesn’t perform abortions today, he said he supports a woman’s right to make that decision and have the procedure done in the safe environment. He worries that the overturn of Roe v. Wade will result in more patients being treated for infections from self-managed abortions, like he saw in the pre-Roe days as a result of the use of unsterile equipment.

“If this is a total ban, then the problem will be that I'm afraid that illegal abortions will return because legal abortions will not be available to those who cannot afford to travel and to seek other ways of getting healthy, clean abortions done,” Hills said. “We think that we're going to see a return of some of the practices and results that we saw back in the 1970s when I was a resident, before we had Roe v. Wade.”

Hills sees this ban forcing more women to go through with pregnancies they may not have planned, and Black women are going to be more affected, as they are three times more likely to die from pregnancy complications than white women in Tennessee.

For physicians at risk of a felony charge for performing an abortion, there is gray area in how they may need to defend themselves for caring for women receiving treatment related to  miscarriages.

“We're going to have to be a lot more vigilant,” Hills said. “We're going to have to have a lot more eyes or individuals to verify whatever it is that we say has caused a miscarriage so that we can't be accused and end up ourselves defending criminal charges.”