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Tennessee case: How narrow can a medical exception be in a state's abortion ban?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A lawsuit is challenging the limits of one of this country's many statewide bans on abortion. It's the law in Tennessee, which does allow some exceptions for medical emergencies, so now a panel of judges in Nashville will hear arguments about when that ban should and should not apply to women with serious pregnancy complications. NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin is in our studios with a preview. Good morning.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, so who are the plaintiffs, and what are their stories?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, the case being heard today was brought by seven patients and two physicians from Tennessee who say they've been harmed by the abortion ban. The lead plaintiff is Nicole Blackmon. When she was pregnant in 2022, she learned her fetus had a number of serious anomalies, and she showed signs of dangerously high blood pressure. Here she is speaking with reporters last fall when the case was first filed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NICOLE BLACKMON: Everything hurt. My vision got blurry. And I felt sharp pains when the baby moved. I was told I was at high risk of having a stroke.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She wanted an abortion but could not get one in Tennessee and could not afford to travel out of state, so she had to carry the pregnancy for months. Then she labored for 32 hours before giving birth to a stillborn child.

INSKEEP: Wow. And this illustrates this question, when you say there's an exception for the life of the mother, what does that mean exactly?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah.

INSKEEP: So who's another plaintiff here?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, Allie Phillips also faced a devastating fetal diagnosis. She testified in the U.S. Senate a few weeks ago about traveling to New York City for an abortion, only to find out she had miscarried.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALLIE PHILLIPS: I went into surgery alone, and I sat in recovery alone. I grieved her loss alone in a city I've never been in, far away from the comfort of my home, my family, and my friends.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: That experience prompted Phillips to actually run for a seat in the Tennessee State House. Today, she will be in court, along with the other plaintiffs.

INSKEEP: OK, so these are really visceral stories...

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...Very emotional stories, and now it gets down to questions of the law - what exactly the law says, how it is supposed to be applied. So what are each side's legal arguments?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, the plaintiffs are being represented by the Center for Reproductive Rights. So in Tennessee, abortion is only legal if someone's life or major bodily function is in danger.

INSKEEP: OK.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: And the plaintiffs argue that wording is unclear in practice and leaves doctors stuck when there are serious pregnancy complications, like we've heard about. So doctors face up to 15 years in prison and $10,000 in fines if they make the wrong call. So the plaintiffs want the court to clarify the exception and put a hold on the ban for cases with these types of complications.

Tennessee's attorney general is defending its abortion law, and in a filing, the state writes, Tennessee's abortion statute lawfully balances the state's interest in protecting the lives of unborn babies with the health of their mothers. The attorney general argues that this national abortion rights group is trying to bait the court into making a more permissive abortion law. And today's hearing will also consider the state's motion to dismiss the case.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking about that phrase, a chilling effect. Essentially, the plaintiffs are arguing that whatever exactly the law says, it causes people to be overcautious. So how does this lawsuit fit in with other cases around the country?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, there has been a lot of abortion news recently. You know, the Supreme Court heard this case about medication abortion.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Florida Supreme Court has issued several rulings. This case in Tennessee is one of several others in which patients are suing their states over abortion restrictions, and several legal scholars I spoke with made the point that regardless of what happens with this case in Tennessee legally, it's also showing the public that real people are being affected by these laws, and that can be powerful politically. One professor I spoke with said if courts reject the arguments these patients and doctors are making, that may actually even be more galvanizing for voters.

INSKEEP: Oh, interesting point. NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin, always a pleasure to see you. Thanks so much.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.