Tennessee court weighs blocking abortion ban during pregnancy complications

FILE PHOTO: State of the State address
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By Nate Raymond

(Reuters) - A Tennessee state court on Thursday weighed a bid by a group of doctors and women to block officials from enforcing the state's near-total ban on abortion in instances when dangerous pregnancy complications arise.

Lawyers for seven women who were denied abortions following pregnancy complications and two doctors told the three-judge panel in Tennessee's Twelfth Judicial District Court in Nashville that a medical exception in the state's abortion ban was so vague that physicians were turning away patients seeking emergency care.

"Doctors are denying or delaying abortion care in cases where even defendants concede that it would be legally permissible," said Linda Goldstein, a lawyer for the plaintiffs at the Center for Reproductive Rights.

Whitney Hermandorfer, a lawyer in Republican Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti's office, said such pregnancy complications were "tremendously unfortunate."

But she said it was a "rare scenario where this type of rare medical risk will come up," and that the state's medical exception gave doctors latitude to use "reasonable medical judgment" to terminate a pregnancy to prevent death or "substantial and irreversible" injury to a pregnant woman.

Yet Chancellor Patricia Head Moskal, a member of the three-judge panel, said it was a "challenge to read clarity into the statute." She said it had "imprecise terms," and she questioned what exactly was a "substantial" risk of injury.

Tennessee's near-total ban took effect in August 2022, after the conservative-majority U.S. Supreme Court earlier that year overturned its landmark 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade that made abortion legal nationwide.

Republican-led Tennessee is one of fourteen states that have banned nearly all abortions. The state legislature adopted an explicit medical exemption to the law in August 2023.

But a group of women and doctors sued in September, arguing the exemption violated the state's constitution. They called it too narrow and vague, an argument that mirrors similar cases in other states like Texas, Idaho and Oklahoma over when emergency medical exceptions to abortion bans apply.

The U.S. Supreme Court on April 24 will consider Democratic President Joe Biden's administration's arguments that a federal law that ensures that patients can receive emergency "stabilizing care" trumps Idaho's near-total abortion ban.

At Thursday's arguments, Goldstein said doctors in Tennessee feared prosecution and were recommending patients leave the state to get crucial medical care because the medical necessity exception did not give them enough guidance to determine when they can provide life or health preserving abortion care.

She said one plaintiff, Nicole Blackmon, who lacked the resources to travel had after learning at 15 weeks of pregnancy her fetus had a condition that made survival unlikely been forced to continue her pregnancy, ultimately giving birth to a stillborn baby at 31 weeks.

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston, Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Aurora Ellis)