Tennessee Taxpayers On The Hook For Governor’s COVID Abortion Ban

State attempts to ban abortion because of the pandemic are finally resulting in financial consequences.

Tennessee Taxpayers On The Hook For Governor’s COVID Abortion Ban
Photo:Jon Cherry (Getty Images)

The state of Tennessee (read: the people who pay taxes there) will pay for abortion providers’ six-figure attorney fees in their challenge to the state’s failed attempt to ban abortions — I mean “non-emergency healthcare procedures” — at the start of the pandemic. Last week, U.S. District Judge Bernard A. Friedman ruled that Tennessee has only a handful of weeks to pay $249,000 in attorneys fees and expenses to the abortion providers.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) signed an early pandemic executive order in April 2020 banning non-emergency healthcare procedures due to the shortage of personal protective equipment for medical professionals. Attorneys for the state of Tennessee argued that abortion care was included in “non-emergency healthcare procedures”— which meant that the pandemic EO effectively banned abortion in the state.

Attorneys for abortion clinics asked the district court to weigh in, as it was already considering Tennessee’s 48-hour delay on abortion care with mandatory in-person counseling that passed in 2015. In April 2020, Friedman ruled that the delay was unconstitutional, as abortion is a “time-sensitive procedure,” and now he’s ruled that the state will have to pay the abortion clinics for the legal fees incurred.

He continued: “Delaying a woman’s access to abortion even by a matter of days can result in her having to undergo a lengthier and more complex procedure that involves progressively greater health risks, or can result in her losing the right to obtain an abortion altogether.”

Along with Tennessee, similar executive orders or ordinances were signed or passed in Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, West Virginia, Iowa and Ohio. Abortion advocates called out the use of COVID-19 as a guise to stop abortions. “We are pleased that the court has ruled in our favor and covered court costs, but it never should have come to this,” Ashley Coffield, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi, said in a statement to Tennessean. “Using COVID-19 as a pretext to prohibit abortion access served no public health benefit and was nothing more than a blatantly political move by the governor and a waste of taxpayer dollars.”

The fees ruling was made last week after the deadline passed to appeal the initial decision to the Supreme Court. But Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery still believes in mandatory delays for abortion care and that abortion should be included in that elective procedure category. “We disagreed with the district court’s decision when it was rendered, which is why we asked the Supreme Court to vacate the district court’s order after the executive order expired. But we understand, respect, and will follow the Court’s rulings. We will continue defending the laws and actions of our State officials, especially on this issue,” Slatery spokesperson Samantha Fisher wrote in an email to Tennessean.

Now taxpayers are responsible for six-figure legal fees after the governor’s failed bait-and-switch. In the past two years, Tennessee’s legendary music industry has been rocked by the economic fallout of the pandemic; in the past five, multiple natural disasters have leveled parts of the Volunteer state, and the effects of climate change will only make it worse. There are so many better ways to spend taxpayer money in Tennessee, but maybe Lee will finally learn that actions have consequences.

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