Tennessee Becomes the 2nd State to Enact an ‘Abortion Trafficking’ Law

The law, set to take effect July 1, is the first since Idaho’s version briefly took effect last spring, only to be blocked in court months later.

Tennessee Becomes the 2nd State to Enact an ‘Abortion Trafficking’ Law

On Tuesday, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) quietly signed into law a bill that criminalizes the act of helping minors travel out-of-state for abortion without parental consent. (Abortion is totally banned in Tennessee.) The law in question calls this “abortion trafficking.”

Navigating abortion access is especially difficult for minors as they face incessant logistical barriers, including parental consent laws in neighboring states where abortion is legal. And for minors living in abusive households, seeking abortion care can often be dangerous. “If you’re banning abortion support for minors, that could result in just stopping them from getting abortion care altogether,” Jessica Goldberg, youth access counsel at If/When/How, told Jezebel in April. The law, which will go into effect July 1, will charge those in violation with a Class A misdemeanor or up to a one-year prison sentence.

This is the first such law to pass since Idaho’s version briefly took effect last spring, only to be blocked in court months later. In addition to Tennessee, Arkansas introduced and has been considering a near-identical bill to prohibit “abortion trafficking” since January. All of this is part of anti-abortion legislators’ latest strategy to try and trap people in states that have banned abortion, and to police and prohibit abortion-related travel—starting with minors, one of the most vulnerable demographics of abortion-seekers. A report by Guttmacher published this spring showed that 66% of adolescents reported that someone had driven them to the facility, compared with 48% of adults. And nearly one in five adolescents didn’t know where to get their abortion compared to 11% of adults.

Experts have warned that this “abortion trafficking” law carries disparate harm for underage sexual abuse victims or minors who lack trusted parents or guardians and may live in abusive homes. Ashley Coffield, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi, has previously condemned the law for endangering young people living in abusive households: “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,” she said in a statement earlier this year. 

Briana Perry, interim executive director of Healthy and Free Tennessee, told Jezebel last month that the “abortion trafficking” bill carries “particular danger for queer and trans kids,” who are more likely to live in unsafe or unstable home situations. The same day Lee signed this anti-abortion bill, he also signed a bill to criminalize adults who help trans minors access gender-affirming care without parental consent. 

The success of the “abortion trafficking” bill in Tennessee comes as anti-abortion activists and lawmakers continue to experiment with new ways to stop people from helping people travel out-of-state. Back in 2021, Texas enacted SB 8, an abortion ban that allows people to sue anyone who’s helped someone get an abortion for at least $10,000. Since then, Texas has seen multiple cases of men attempting to weaponize SB 8 to sue people who allegedly helped their ex-partners have abortions. Last summer, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall (R) called the act of traveling out-of-state for abortion a “criminal conspiracy” in a court filing. Marshall and 18 other Republican state attorneys general signed a letter in July against a Biden policy to protect traveling abortion patients’ medical data from being shared with prosecutors in their home states.

The Tennessee law, like lawsuits in Texas, is meant to create a “culture of fear and isolation” and force people—in this case, young people—“to be pregnant against their will, push their desires for the future out-of-reach, and deprive them of their health,” Goldberg previously told Jezebel. 

Like Idaho’s “abortion trafficking” law, Tennessee’s will likely be challenged in court. Coffield told reporters that her Planned Parenthood chapter is in “consultation with our lawyers about how to comply with the law if we need to comply with it or whether we can challenge the law.” The American Civil Liberties Union also sent a letter to Lee warning the governor that “nothing” in the law “suggests a court will look more favorably on its content-based criminalization of speech and expression,” and described the bill as “unconstitutionally vague.”

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