Southern Baptist and government pro-life supporters welcomed a federal appeals court ruling that enables the state of Tennessee to enforce its ban of abortions based on disability, ethnicity or sex.
The Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati reversed Nov. 20 a federal judge’s order that had blocked enforcement of the “reasons ban,” as it is known. The measure, which prohibits an abortion when a doctor knows the request for the procedure is driven by the unborn child’s ethnicity, sex or a diagnosis of Down syndrome, was part of a pro-life package enacted in July and enjoined immediately in federal court.
The state requested the Sixth Circuit Court permit the “reasons ban” section only to be enforced while the case works its way through the courts, and a panel of judges agreed in a 2-1 decision.
“All Christians know that the state has a duty to protect the most vulnerable. Tennessee has been taking much-needed proactive steps to become a state that does just that,” said Elizabeth Graham, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s vice president of operations and head of life initiatives.
“Too many have been using a diagnosis of Down syndrome as a reason to rob preborn children not only of their inherent dignity but also of their lives. This court ruling ensures that will no longer be the case in Tennessee.”
Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, tweeted his approval after the Sixth Circuit action.
“Every life is precious and every child has inherent human dignity,” he wrote. “Our law prohibits abortion based on the race, gender or diagnosis of Down syndrome of the child and the court’s decision will save lives. Protecting our most vulnerable Tennesseans is worth the fight.”
According to the National Down Syndrome Society, an estimated 6,000 children are born with Down syndrome each year in the United States. The syndrome occurs when a person has an extra copy of chromosome 21. A 2012 study published in the journal Prenatal Diagnosis calculated an abortion rate of 67% after a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome.
Lee presented to the legislature this year and signed into law a package of provisions that included in its final version the “reasons ban” and:
- A prohibition on abortion when a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which can be as early as six weeks.
- A requirement of an ultrasound test and information on the unborn child’s gestational age for a woman before she undergoes an abortion.
- A ban on abortion for a juvenile in custody of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services.
Abortion rights advocates who challenged the pro-life package charged that the “reasons ban” was motivated by opposition to abortion and failed to help the disabled or address discrimination based on ethnicity.
“These bans are just another way anti-abortion politicians are attempting to limit the constitutional right to abortion care and to create stigma,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, in a written statement. “We will continue to fight these bans in the courts.”
In its decision, the Sixth Circuit panel rejected the federal court’s finding that the “reasons ban” section of the law is unconstitutionally vague. The unlikelihood of success for the vagueness arguments and the continuing harm suffered by the state called for a stay of the federal court’s injunction, the panel majority said.
The Center for Reproductive Rights and its partners in the suit asked a federal court later Nov. 20 to block enforcement of the “reasons ban,” this time because it violates the right to abortion.
The Planned Parenthood Federation of America, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and ACLU of Tennessee joined the Center for Reproductive Rights in challenging the ban on behalf of abortion providers in the state.
Tennessee is one of 17 states that have enacted prohibitions of abortions based on disability, ethnicity and/or sex, according to the National Right to Life Committee.
The Supreme Court struck down state bans on abortion in its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. In a 1992 opinion, the high court affirmed Roe but also ruled states may regulate abortion to protect the lives and health of women.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.)