Vanderbilt's First and Only Nonpartisan Political Journal

Vanderbilt Political Review

Vanderbilt's First and Only Nonpartisan Political Journal

Vanderbilt Political Review

Vanderbilt's First and Only Nonpartisan Political Journal

Vanderbilt Political Review

OP-ED: Gilead or America? Tennessee GOP Seeks to Institute Abortion Travel Ban


Tennessee’s GOP opened the 113th legislative session with a host of bills about abortion and gender-affirming care—two hot-button topics of the past year’s sessions. The most controversial legislation for the session is House Bill 1895, also dubbed the “Abortion Travel Ban,” which seeks to prevent the “abortion trafficking of a minor” by creating a criminal offense that allows charges to be brought upon anyone who “recruits, harbors, or transports” a pregnant unemancipated minor to obtain a “criminal abortion” without the consent of their legal guardian(s). 


The state of Tennessee has some of the narrowest exceptions for abortion — exceptions that do not include instances of rape or incest. Sponsored by State Representative Jason Zachary (R-Knoxville), the bill is described as “simply a parental rights bill.” The argument surrounding this bill is one of balancing parents’ rights to make decisions about their child’s care with the ability of pregnant minors to access a safe, legal abortion in another state in situations where their parent or guardian is not a trusted adult. 


Danielle Pimentel, a representative for Americans United for Life (AUL), insists this bill is necessary to protect parents’ rights to care for their daughters’ upbringing. She described abortion as “coercive abuse” and said the bill would deter abuse from “trafficking minor girls” to obtain “criminal abortions.” In the view of AUL, adolescents do not have fully developed decision-making abilities, making parental involvement necessary. Moreover, due to minor pregnancies often having more complications, parental involvement is crucial for proper prenatal care. 


Local Davidson County resident Macie Fluharty testified against the bill and called attention to the many gray areas and problems this bill poses. She identifies that 90% of abortions happen in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, during which an abortion is easy to hide. Her testimony raised several questions: What happens if the person driving the minor doesn’t know they are pregnant? Does this make them liable to civil penalties? 


After hearing testimony, the committee moved to a voice vote with the “ayes” prevailing and Representatives Hemmer (D-Nashville) and Clemmons (D-Nashville) requesting to be recorded as no votes. The bill moved on and was heard in the House Health Committee on February 21st, where Democrat caucus members asked critical questions on the vague aspects of the bill. 


Democratic Caucus Chair John Ray Clemmons asked a series of hypothetical questions that illuminated the danger of the indefinite nature of HB1895, including if a child confiding in a trusted youth minister or lawyer would qualify as the bill’s definition of “concealing… a criminal abortion from the parents or guardian of the pregnant unemancipated minor.” House sponsor Zachary answered each question by saying it would be up to the courts to make these decisions. 


Two Tennessee physicians, OBGYN Nicole Schlechter, MD, PhD, and pediatrician Jill Obremsky, MD, MMHC, also testified against the bill.  Dr. Schlechter warned against the higher risk of medical complications in child pregnancy and emphasized the reality that all pregnant minors do not have a trusting relationship with their parent or guardian—particularly in cases of rape or incest. This law would erode the various sources of support pregnant children receive. Child pregnancies, especially those denied desired abortion care, are more likely to result in economic hardship, cause the child to stay in contact with a violent partner, and compound existing social issues in a child’s life. Tennessee is already the state with one of the highest maternal mortality rates, and fewer new doctors are choosing Tennessee to practice obstetrics on top of the 32% of Tennessee counties that qualify as maternal care deserts. 


After further deliberation and testimony from Dr. Obremsky, a roll call vote was taken with sixteen yes and seven no votes, almost entirely along party lines. Representative Whitson (R-Franklin) was the sole vote across party lines due to a personal anecdote where a friend of his took their minor partner to get an abortion, and this law would criminalize that scenario. 


While proponents of this bill insist it is a move to secure the rights of parents, I am not convinced. After the Tennessee General Assembly’s previous session to ban gender-affirming care for minors, it is clear that there is no consistency on the rights of parents in Tennessee and that these rights will only be secured if they are in line with the Tennessee GOP’s agenda. 


This bill would open trusted community leaders and adults to a host of legal consequences and place the law at odds with vulnerable children and youth ministers, aunts, grandparents, and uncles. Right to Life representatives were quick to note that children don’t have fully formed decision-making abilities, so they can’t make abortion decisions. However, this same group would have that child make decisions for a child of their own. 


Moreover, what happens to children whose parent is their abuser, or worse, the reason that they are pregnant to begin with? This bill once again leaves out the most vulnerable populations from the scope of its “protection” and submits a child already in an impossible situation to shoulder the burden of legal proceedings to defend their ability to make choices without the permission of their potential abuser. 


In Tennessee, a mother can be covered by Medicaid, but her unborn child can be left uncovered by the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) due to the state’s income thresholds for Medicaid. In a state where an embryo is given more rights than its mother, I am eerily reminded of the world painted by Margeret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, where the only value a handmaid offers is her ability to procreate. Inch by inch, we move closer to the worlds created in books we deem dystopian fiction. 


The Vanderbilt bubble does not stop us from being affected by the laws the state legislature makes. Get involved with Vanderbilt’s Generation Action chapter or local Planned Parenthood events. Register to be a patient escort or just show up at Cordell Hull Building when a bill is heard. Being apolitical is a privilege we, as Tennessee college students, do not have.

Photo Courtesy of Jules Edwards

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About the Contributor
Shreya Gupta
Shreya Gupta, Managing Director
Shreya Gupta (she/her/hers) is a junior from Marlboro, New Jersey majoring in Medicine, Health, and Society and minoring in Political Science. Her interests include healthcare, historical injustice, and equity-based policy. Outside of VPR, Shreya is active in Vanderbilt Student Government, Kappa Alpha Theta, and Vanderbilt College Democrats. She also does health policy research at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and enjoys working with brands to generate content. She loves to read, try new restaurants, and watch Korean Dramas.