A new bill filed in the Tennessee General Assembly would trigger a ban on abortions — but only if the country’s highest court overturns Roe v. Wade.
The proposal by Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, and Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mt. Juliet, is one of many such measures making their way through state legislatures.
The measure, Senate Bill 1257/House Bill 1029, is at least the sixth bill nationwide that would ban abortion contingent on a change in constitutional law. It also comes as some other states, including New York, Vermont and Virginia have debated rolling back restrictions on abortions that are currently on the books.
The proposal in Tennessee differs from past legislation in that it does not seek to challenge Roe v. Wade or add any of the restrictions, such as waiting periods or requirements on abortion providers, that the courts have allowed since the landmark decision. That means its immediate impact is largely symbolic.
At a press conference held last week to discuss their proposal, backers recognized as much. Gresham said her bill would make clear that Tennessee is an anti-abortion state.
“We want to be proactive so that when and if Roe. v. Wade is overturned, we would be ready to protect the unborn children and mothers in Tennessee,” Gresham said.
The measure is backed by Tennessee Right to Life, raising its prospects for passage this year. That organization has been helped push through measures like the 2014 amendment that removed protections for abortion from the state constitution. It’s also worked to block some of the most extreme anti-abortion proposals, like a ban once a fetal heartbeat has been detected, that are unlikely to stand up in court.
Supporters of the measure point to an increasingly conservative judiciary under President Donald Trump as an impetus. And it comes amid a wave of such measures.
Four states have passed bills similar to the one being considered in Tennessee, and Kentucky is currently weighing it.
But Tracey George, a law professor at Vanderbilt University who has been a frequent advocate for abortion rights, says the bill’s sole purpose is to score a win for anti-abortion lawmakers.
“The only reason to propose this bill, is purely political,” says Tracey George.
But George argues it is unlikely for the Supreme Court to overturn a landmark decision like Roe v. Wade, since some justice would fear that might harm the integrity of the court.
She points to Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s surprising decision in a 2000 case that challenged Miranda warnings as an example of conservative justices setting aside their personal preferences to protect the court’s reputation.
“Chief Justice (John) Roberts (is) like his predecessor Chief Justice William Rehnquist — both very conservative, but both very concerned about the institutional legitimacy of the U.S. Supreme Court and the federal judiciary generally,” George said. “And dramatic changes in precedent and law undermine the legitimacy of judicial institutions.”