Tennessee Passes Bill to Criminalize Abortion Support for Minors: ‘Terror Is the Intent’

A legal expert told Jezebel the bill is “meant to further confuse” young people navigating an already wildly complex process to access abortion.

Tennessee Passes Bill to Criminalize Abortion Support for Minors: ‘Terror Is the Intent’
The Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville, Tennessee. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In Tennessee, Briana Perry, interim executive director of Healthy and Free Tennessee, has seen how children and minors in the state have always been denied access to essential sexual and reproductive health resources. From restrictions on accurate, comprehensive sexual health education in schools, to laws that required minors to receive parental consent for abortion when it was still legal in the state, young people in Tennessee have always been excluded from “the decision-making process, from their full bodily autonomy.” Now, new legislation stands to further endanger them.

On Wednesday, the Tennessee state House passed a bill that would criminalize the act of helping minors travel out-of-state for abortion care (which is totally banned in the state) without parental consent. The state Senate passed the bill earlier this month, thus sending it straight to Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s desk. If it’s signed, it will be illegal for an adult take a minor out-of-state to get an abortion, and those in violation would be charged with a Class A misdemeanor, or up to a one-year prison sentence. At the last minute, the bill’s authors added a clause that would prevent ambulance drivers and other transportation services from being held liable—which, if anything, acknowledges the breadth of just how many people could be needlessly criminally implicated under this law.

Advocates have warned that the bill carries disparate harm for underage sexual abuse victims or minors who may not have trusted parents or guardians, or who might live in abusive homes. The bill itself could be wielded as a tool for abusers, Jessica Goldberg, youth access counsel at If/When/How, told Jezebel. “We know that bans on abortion support have been weaponized by abusers to further abuse and to harass their victims or their victims’ loved ones through abusive litigation and campaigns of terror,” Goldberg said. “This opens the door for that to happen.”

The Tennessee bill is similar to a law that briefly took effect in Idaho last year before being blocked in court, both claim to prevent “abortion trafficking” while framing helping someone travel for care as abusive and criminal. In reality, the bill further endangers underage abuse victims: “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 of the bill earlier this year. Perry emphasized that legislation like this also carries “particular danger for queer and trans kids,” who are more likely to live in unsafe or unstable home situations.

While the bill specifically targets minors, Goldberg argued it’s part of a broader effort by anti-abortion lawmakers to “ban abortion support,” or the act of even helping someone try to access care, which we’ve seen in several other states. (For example: Texas’ SB 8 abortion ban that allows people to sue anyone who’s helped someone access abortion for at least $10,000, or bills in Texas and South Carolina attempting to prevent internet providers from hosting websites with information about medication abortion.) Then, there’s the fact that navigating abortion access is already especially difficult as a minor, faced with incessant logistical barriers, including parental consent laws in nearby states where abortion is legal. Minors need abortion support more than anyone, Goldberg said. “So, if you’re banning abortion support for minors, that could result in just stopping them from getting abortion care altogether.” A new report by Guttmacher, published in early April, found 66% of adolescents reported that someone had driven them to the facility, compared with 48% of adults. About one in five adolescents did not know where to get their abortion, compared with 11% of adults.

The bill could also function to stop minors from accessing abortion due to confusion about what it does, Goldberg says. If minors believe it’s a ban on their right to travel for abortion care altogether instead of a ban on people helping them, they won’t even try to get care. Overall, it’s about creating a “culture of fear and isolation,” to “force young people to be pregnant against their will, push their desires for the future out-of-reach, and deprive them of their health.”

That starts with trying to stop anyone from helping them: “Targeting trusted adults, family members, and helpers who assist minors in accessing abortion will have a chilling effect and is dangerous and irresponsible,” Coffield said in January. “If you know a minor who miscarries, you’re a potential suspect.”

In other words, “terror is the intent,” Perry said. “It’s about stopping people who otherwise would from helping kids who need them.”

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