Tennessee prepares to crack down on abortion if conservative justices scrap Roe v. Wade

Tennessee could become the seventh state with a "trigger" abortion ban.

A bill to outlaw virtually all abortions in Tennessee if the Supreme Court overturns the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision is headed to the governor’s desk.

The state senate and general assembly sent the so-called “trigger” abortion ban Monday evening to Gov. Bill Lee (R), who has repeatedly promised to sign any bills that restrict abortion access.

“I have said, and continue to say, that I would support legislation that lowers the number of abortions in the state,” Lee told the Daily Memphian. “I will look at that particular bill when it gets to my desk. But I am interested in it.”

Banning abortion doesn’t actually reduce the number of abortions that occur — it just criminalizes providers and patients. In the 1950s and 1960s, before Roe legalized the procedure, anywhere between 200,000 to 1.2 million illegal abortions occurred per year, according to the Guttmacher Institute’s compilation of estimates. Currently, with Roe intact, abortion rates have reached a historic low, according to federal data.


Tennessee’s “trigger” abortion ban, which Lee could sign into law as early as Tuesday, only makes exemptions for medical emergencies. Under the ban, doctors could face felony charges for providing abortions in any other circumstance.

If the law is enacted, Tennessee will become the seventh state with a “trigger” abortion ban that will take effect if Roe is overturned. Lawmakers in Missouri and Arkansas also passed “trigger” bans this year, citing the conservative shift in the Supreme Court since President Donald Trump was able to appoint two justices. Up to 22 states are likely to restrict abortion if Roe is reversed, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights.

There are at least a dozen abortion-related cases before courts around the country, giving conservative justices ample opportunity to reconsider the right to abortion set by Roe.

“When Roe v. Wade is overturned, we’ll be able to determine abortion policies in place in Tennessee,” said state Rep. Susan Lynn (R), one of the bill’s sponsors. “We will return to a pro-life policy in this state.”


Meanwhile, Tennessee lawmakers weren’t able to pass a bill to outlaw abortion as early as six weeks of pregnancy. Anti-abortion lawmakers helped defeat the so-called “fetal heartbeat” bill Monday evening because they’re in disagreement on how to overturn Roe.

“Is this bill the right bill to lead us to victory in the Supreme Court? And that’s a legitimate question that has to be asked. Because the wrong bill or a poorly worded bill can have devastating consequences,” said state Sen. Kerry Roberts (R).

But that hasn’t deterred anti-abortion lawmakers elsewhere. So far this year, three states — Ohio, Kentucky, Mississippi — have moved to enact “fetal heartbeat” bills, though Kentucky’s has already been blocked by a federal court.

This story has been updated to include information on the number of states likely to restrict abortion if Roe is overturned.