In the early-morning hours of June 19, the Tennessee Senate rallied to pass a last-minute healthcare bill. It had nothing to do with mitigating the coronavirus pandemic that had claimed the lives of more than 530 Tennesseans, nor did it address the widespread police violence on display in cities across the country. Instead, it was a wide-ranging anti-abortion bill. Passed in the dead of night after back-room negotiating with Republicans in the Tennessee House, it included one of the most extreme abortion bans in the U.S., banning the procedure at six weeks, before many people even know they’re pregnant.
Simply put, Tennessee just signed into law a near-total abortion ban.
Last year, a spate of similarly draconian abortion bans swept across the South and the Midwest. In all, 25 new abortion bans were signed into American law in 2019, including six-week bans in Georgia, Mississippi, Kentucky, and a total abortion ban in Alabama. “We saw these political attacks on the reproductive rights of Southerners last year across Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama,” Quita Tinsley, co-director of Access Reproductive Care-Southeast, a regional abortion fund, told Refinery29. “And we are angered to see Tennessee join the list of states that are using our bodies and lives as pawns in their political games.”
All of these bans were created and passed with the express purpose of providing the Supreme Court with the opportunity to overturn Roe v. Wade and end nationwide legal abortion. They are incredibly unpopular with American voters, and yet conservative legislatures continue to pass them.
Tennessee's ban is similar to the others, but this time there is a lack of national outcry. Alabama’s total abortion ban was met with a tidal wave of outrage — calls for boycotts of states like Georgia and Alabama were common, and groups like the WNBA spoke out in fierce opposition to the bans. Tennessee’s abortion ban has barely registered on the national radar. While people are rightly filling the streets to protest the state-sanctioned killing of Black people like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and so many others, Tennessee’s six-week abortion ban, the seventh of its kind, landed with a relative thud.
That is understandable. The urgent need to curb police violence and stop the never-ending murders of innocent people has rightfully captured the nation’s political energy. But Tennessee’s egregious new law should be a part of that conversation, too, because at their core, abortion bans aren’t just sexist — they are fundamentally racist.
“Black women and girls, other vulnerable Tennessee women and pregnant people, will die without safe and legal access to abortion care,” Cherisse Scott, founder and CEO of SisterReach, a reproductive justice organization based in Memphis, said in a statement. “This legislation is not only unconstitutional, but racist and classist. This legislation was decided by a majority white, male, evangelical legislature that double-talks about life while they unapologetically sanction the killing and destruction of vulnerable families all over this state.”
Abortion bans don’t happen in a vacuum. States that pass these draconian bans already have myriad restrictions on the books, including mandatory waiting periods, prohibition on insurance coverage for abortion, and TRAP laws that have helped force a third of clinics to close in the past decade. These restrictions work together to create an impenetrable barrier to abortion access for Black women, in particular, making it difficult to afford, difficult to find, and difficult to travel. And, if Black women are able to get to a clinic, they are often met with racist signs from anti-abortion protesters like “Black Unborn Lives Matter” and “The most dangerous place for an African-American is in the womb.”
Tennessee’s ban contains a number of other punitive restrictions. The law bans abortion for minors in the custody of the Department of Children’s Services, removing even the option to petition a judge. It bans abortion if the fetus has Down Syndrome, a restriction disability advocates have rejected. It also bans “sex-selective” abortion, attempting to turn feminism on its head to advocate against abortion rights. Bans on sex-selective abortion are "based on misinformation and negative stereotypes about Asian communities and are meant to restrict access to abortion service," according to the Guttmacher Institute.
It’s clear that abortion bans disproportionately impact women of colour, Black women in particular. Nationally, Black women are up to four times more likely to die in childbirth or of pregnancy-related causes than white women. States like Georgia and Mississippi, both of which passed six-week abortion bans last year, already have some of the worst Black maternal mortality rates in the country. Banning abortion makes it even more difficult for Black women to access reproductive healthcare, and it makes it more likely that they will have to turn to underground methods, thus facing potential criminalization. In fact, Black women like Latice Fisher in Mississippi have been charged with murder simply for searching for medication abortion on the internet.
When abortion is banned and criminalized, it is Black women who suffer the most. And the timing and nature of the bill’s passage itself reveals its intentions. Not only was this bill passed in the middle of the night, in a last-minute, surprise move, but it took place in the early morning hours of Juneteenth, a landmark commemoration that marks the day the last-remaining enslaved people in Texas were finally notified of their freedom in 1865.
On this Juneteenth holiday, commemorating the liberation of slaves two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, we find ourselves once again impacted by white supremacy, errant theology, and political terrorism led by white men.
Cherisse Scott, Sisterreach
“On this Juneteenth holiday, commemorating the liberation of slaves two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, we find ourselves once again impacted by white supremacy, errant theology, and political terrorism led by white men,” Cherisse Scott of SisterReach said in a statement. “This abortion ban is the knee on the neck of Black women. This abortion ban will place our lives at stake and is the crucifixion of the most vulnerable people in Tennessee. Gov. [Bill] Lee, every Senator and House Representative who made this abortion ban possible, are no better than Officer Derek Chauvin.”
The fight for Black lives is inextricably linked to the fight against abortion bans like Tennessee’s. Black women like Scott have been fighting racist reproductive restrictions for years, and it’s unacceptable that they should continue that fight alone any longer. White supremacy reaches into every aspect of life in America, and that includes reproductive politics. That’s why Black women founded reproductive justice, a revolutionary way of thinking that contextualized abortion within a broader human rights framework “to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” For white people who posted a #BlackoutTuesday square, who bought a book on anti-racism for the first time, who are finally opening their eyes to the pervasive reality of violent white supremacy in this country, it’s well past time to extend that outrage to racist abortion bans.
Tennessee’s abortion ban has already been challenged in court. But if it is allowed to go into effect, it will undoubtedly cost some Black women their lives. It’s up to all of us to ensure that doesn’t happen.