2 States Have Introduced Abortion ‘Trafficking’ Laws to Prosecute People for Helping Minors Get Care

It’s part of anti-abortion lawmakers’ ongoing goal to trap people in their states and under abortion bans.

2 States Have Introduced Abortion ‘Trafficking’ Laws to Prosecute People for Helping Minors Get Care
The Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville, left, and the Oklahoma State Capitol in Oklahoma City. Photo:Shutterstock

Two new states have introduced so-called “abortion trafficking” laws that would criminalize anyone who helps a minor travel for abortion care. On Monday, Republican legislators in Tennessee and Oklahoma filed nearly identical bills that match a law that briefly went into effect in Idaho last year but was blocked in court in November.

Tennessee’s bill, SB 1971, states that an adult who “recruits, harbors, or transports a pregnant unemancipated minor within this state for the purpose of” helping them access “criminal abortion” has committed “the offense of abortion trafficking of a minor”—even if they travel to a state where abortion is legal. Oklahoma’s bill uses this same language verbatim. Tennessee’s bill classifies “abortion trafficking” as a Class C felony punishable with up to 15 years in prison, while Oklahoma’s bill would punish offenders with up to five years in prison. Both bills also punish adults who help minors access medication abortion pills.

Tennessee’s bill states that a minor consenting to travel with their trusted adult to obtain abortion doesn’t offer “defense to a prosecution.” It also goes a step further and would make adults charged under the law vulnerable to civil lawsuits from the minor’s parents unless the unwanted pregnancy resulted from rape or incest.

The bills supposedly only target people who help minors travel out-of-state for abortion care without parental consent and don’t apply to children’s parents and legal guardians. Tennessee state Rep. Jason Zachary (R) has explicitly said his bill “doesn’t involve any parents’ decision making for their children” and just “protects children.” Of course, in reality, the bill could target and imprison aunts, grandparents, and other adult loved ones who try to help a child with an unwanted pregnancy. As Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi have pointed out, “abortion trafficking” laws also target minors who may not have supportive relationships with their parents: “Most minors involve a parent in their decision to get an abortion. But for young people living in abusive households, disclosing sexual activity or pregnancy can trigger physical or emotional abuse, including direct physical or sexual violence, or being thrown out of the home,” Ashley Coffield, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi, said in a press release. “This bill makes criminals out of trusted adults, including other family members, who can help in these circumstances.”

Coffield continued, “Targeting trusted adults, family members, and helpers who assist minors in accessing abortion will have a chilling effect and is dangerous and irresponsible. If you know a minor who miscarries, you’re a potential suspect.”

Kiki Council, a Colorado-based attorney who helps minors travel out-of-state for abortion care without parental consent—which requires judicial bypass, or permission from a judge—told Jezebel last year that “minors who can’t tell their parents about their choice are in very precarious, vulnerable positions at home.”

That two states have filed these bills in the first month of the year is chilling, especially as legal experts last year warned that “abortion trafficking” is Republicans’ next play to stop anyone from even helping young people get abortions—and, in the future, stop anyone from traveling out-of-state for care. In August, Alabama’s Republican attorney general Steve Marshall called the act of helping anyone travel for abortion care a “criminal conspiracy.”

“Their goal has always been to stop everyone, nationwide, from getting abortion, and put this vital health care out of reach full-stop,” Andrew Beck, senior attorney at the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project, told Jezebel last April of Idaho’s abortion trafficking bill. At the time, Elisabeth Smith, state policy director at the Center for Reproductive Rights, likened Idaho’s bill to a wave of bills across the country to police the dissemination of information about abortion, prohibit mailing abortion pills, and any other acts that could help someone access abortion. The goal of these laws, she explained, is to trap people in their states, under abortion bans.

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