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Judge Lifts Restraining Order on Tenn. Antiabortion-Rights Law

Judge Lifts Restraining Order on Tenn. Antiabortion-Rights Law

August 12, 2015 — A federal judge on Monday conditionally lifted a restraining order that prevented Tennessee officials from enforcing an antiabortion-rights law (Pub. Ch. 419) requiring new licenses for clinics that provide abortions, The Tennessean reports (Wadhwani, The Tennessean, 8/10).

Background

The law, which was scheduled to take effect on July 1, would require all facilities or physician offices that perform more than 50 surgical abortions annually to be licensed as ambulatory surgical centers.

Four of the six abortion clinics in the state that provide surgical abortions currently meet the licensing standards, while a fifth provider, in Knoxville, only provides medication abortion and therefore is not subject to the requirement. Bristol Regional Women's Center and the Women's Center in Nashville are the two remaining clinics that provide surgical abortions and are not licensed as ambulatory surgical centers.

Lawsuit Details

The Center for Reproductive Rights in June filed a lawsuit against three antiabortion-rights laws, including the ambulatory surgical licensing requirement, on behalf of three abortion clinics and an ob-gyn in the state. CRR filed suit on behalf of the Bristol and Nashville clinics; CHOICES, the Memphis Center for Reproductive Health; and Wesley Adams, an ob-gyn who provides abortion care at the Bristol and Nashville clinics (Women's Health Policy Report, 7/13).

The other antiabortion-rights laws challenged in the lawsuit include a 2012 statute requiring physicians who provide abortion care to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. According to CRR's lawsuit, two clinics have closed under the law. Meanwhile, the third contested law (SB 1222), which took effect July 1, imposes a mandatory delay and requires that women receive in-person counseling from a physician prior to having an abortion, forcing women to make an additional trip to the clinic prior to the abortion procedure (Women's Health Policy Report, 7/26).

CRR asked the court to block the ambulatory surgical center requirement while the lawsuit against all three laws continues. According to lawsuit, the Bristol and Nashville clinics risk closure because they do not meet the ambulatory surgical center standards.

U.S. District Judge Kevin Sharp in June blocked the ambulatory surgical center requirement and in July extended the restraining order, allowing the two clinics to remain open (Women's Health Policy Report, 7/13).

New Developments

On Monday, Sharp lifted the order after the clinics and state licensing officials began work toward approving the clinics' licenses. However, he indicated that he could revisit his decision as soon as Thursday.

Separately, Scott Tift, an attorney representing the clinics, said physicians at the two clinics were concerned that they could be prosecuted if the local district attorneys filed criminal charges against them for violating the new law. "The concern on the part of these doctors is about the potential to lose their licenses or be charged with a crime," he said.

Meanwhile, Steven Hart, special counsel with the Tennessee attorney general's office, said, "There is no indication either of the district attorneys are intending to prosecute."

Sharp on Monday allowed the plaintiffs to amend their lawsuit to include the district attorneys in Nashville and Sullivan Counties, where the two affected clinics are located, and to ask them to formally state that they will not prosecute the physicians. Sharp said he would reassess his decision during an emergency hearing on Thursday if the district attorneys do not agree to submit such statements (The Tennessean, 8/10).