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November 09, 2022

The Tennessee Trigger Ban

The Broad Scope of Tennessee’s Law Criminalizing Abortion

By Chloe Akers

The Tennessee trigger ban on abortion makes it a Class C felony to terminate any pregnancy for any reason—even if the termination is considered life-saving medical care. This is because the Tennessee law, by way of its legal definition of the terms “abortion” and “pregnancy,” does not just criminalize some abortions, it criminalizes all abortions.

According to the Tennessee law, “abortion means the use of any instrument, medicine, drug or any other substance or device with intent to terminate the pregnancy of a woman known to be pregnant.” While the definition does exclude certain circumstances, the procedures utilized in those circumstances would never be considered a termination of pregnancy. For example, while the definition does exclude pregnancies that are terminated with an intent to “increase the probability of a live birth or preserve the life or health of the child after live birth,” ending a pregnancy with such an intent is considered a delivery, not a termination of pregnancy. Likewise, the definition of abortion also excludes the “removal of a dead fetus.” However, the removal of a dead fetus is naturally distinguished from termination because the pregnancy ended prior to any medical intervention. Pregnancy is defined under the law as “the human female reproductive condition of having a living unborn child within her body throughout the entire embryonic and fetal stages…from fertilization until birth.” Thus, taken together, the definition of the terms “abortion” and “pregnancy” create a law that includes the intentional termination of any pregnancy from the moment of fertilization.

In addition to its law applying to every termination of pregnancy, Tennessee’s statute does not contain any exceptions to this criminalized conduct. Thus, Tennessee stands only with Idaho as the two states in the country to criminalize this medical procedure without at least some provision in the law, however limited, for the decriminalization of abortion in situations of medical necessity. Indeed, of the ten other states with laws criminalizing abortion, each state’s law either excludes certain types of termination procedures from their legal definition of abortion, provides for exceptions to the law’s application in certain circumstances, or both.

For example, the laws in Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and West Virginia each specifically exclude the termination of ectopic pregnancies, which are pregnancies developing outside the uterus wherein a fetus is never viable, from the legal definition of abortion and create additional exceptions to their laws for cases in which termination is necessary for reasons related to the mother’s health. On the other hand, the laws in Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and South Dakota, while not excluding any specific terminations like those in response to an ectopic pregnancy from their definition of abortion, do create exceptions to their laws for cases in which termination is necessary for reasons related to the mother’s health.

However, Tennessee’s law, like the partially enjoined law in Idaho, does not contain any provision for decriminalizing abortion, regardless of the medical circumstance, whether by exclusion of certain procedures from the definition of abortion or through an exception in cases of risk to maternal health. Instead, the law contains only a narrow affirmative defense that must be proven by a provider by a preponderance of evidence and which never functions to shift the burden back to the state.

As Senior Federal District Judge B. Lynn Winmill recently pointed out with respect to Idaho’s law, “[a]n affirmative defense is an excuse, not an exception. The difference is not academic. The affirmative defense admits that the physician was justified and is therefore legally blameless. And it can only be raised after the physician has already faced indictment, arrest, pretrial detention, and trial for every abortion they perform.” As a result, the law “makes it impossible to provide an abortion without also committing a crime.”

In addition to fact that Tennessee’s law is structured without any exception for abortions performed out of medical necessity, the affirmative defense itself is extraordinarily vague and ambiguous, requiring a provider to prove to a jury that the abortion in question was necessary either to “prevent the death of the pregnant woman or to prevent serious risk of substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function.” Importantly, this affirmative defense is different from the statutorily recognized defense of self-defense: Under the law, once self-defense is fairly raised by the facts, the burden shifts back to the state to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant did not act in self-defense; under the trigger ban, the burden never shifts back to the state and instead remains squarely on the defendant throughout the trial.

However, because these terms are not defined in the law, it is unclear what situations are contemplated in terms of necessity. For example, the law does not provide any insight into what circumstances make a risk “serious” or what distinguishes a “major” bodily function from a minor bodily function. Likewise, there is no direction as to how to measure these considerations—it is in degrees of pain or seriousness of prognosis? What about the intersection of a patient’s underlying health history and its impact on this analysis? Is something that is considered a minimal risk for one patient considered a serious risk for another if one patient is diabetic? Is there a time limit to “irreversible” impairment? Does that mean an impairment that is never reversed? What if the condition may ease with time? What if that time is six months or 15 years? What if the condition could be reversed in the future, but reversal is not certain or immediate? The questions are endless.

The reality is that medical decision making is not always a clear path. Doctors must advise patients understanding that their conversations rarely involve certainty and almost always require analysis in degrees of risk and unknown outcomes. In this respect, the law and medicine are quite similar. Both rely on experience and expertise to generate possibilities and potential courses of action knowing there is never one right answer.

Given the structure of Tennessee’s law, including its lack of exception and vague affirmative defense, healthcare providers are being put in the untenable position of choosing between doing their jobs and committing a crime. If the law is not changed to reflect the complexity, nuance, and humanity of the subject matter it seeks to legislate, Tennessee will lose one of its most valuable resources—its healthcare providers.

    Chloe Akers

    Law Office of Chloe A. Akers, Esq., Knoxville, TN

    Chloe Akers is a criminal defense attorney living and working in Knoxville, TN. A graduate of both Cornell University and the University of Tennessee, College of Law, she has practiced as a state and federal public defender in Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Seattle and spent the past three years in private practice. She is an accomplished trial lawyer focusing on the litigating complex legal matters to juries. In addition to maintaining her own firm, Ms. Akers is the founder of Standing Together Tennessee, Inc., a legal resource center designed to educate healthcare providers, attorneys, and patients on the realities of her state’s criminalization of abortion.

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