ACLU calls for Gov. Lee to veto for ‘unworkably vague’ abortion trafficking bill

Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, attends a House floor session on Jan. 22, 2024. (Erik Schelzig)

Apr 30, 2024

The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee is urging Republican Gov. Bill Lee to veto an “abortion trafficking” bill that makes it a crime for anyone who “recruits, harbors or transports” a minor out-of-state to obtain an abortion without the consent of a parent or legal guardian.

“We need to protect the rights and well-being of Tennessee’s young people,” said Bryan Davidson, the Tennessee ACLU’s policy director, in a statement. He called on the Republican governor to veto the bill, charging that the bill’s passage was “politically motivated” and “not about making young people safer — they are about pushing abortion care out of reach.”

Lee’s office did not respond to a request for comment about the ACLU letter. The bill had yet to reach the governor’s desk as of mid-day Tuesday.

The measure initially sought to make violations a Class C felony punishable by six to 10 years in prison. But the bill was amended substantially in the Senate to reduce the punishment to a Class A misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to 364 days in jail and fines of up to $2,500. 

During House debate, bill sponsor Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville said a couple he knew told him their 14-year-old daughter who was pregnant was “taken by what we assumed is a trusted adult, they’d been taken to Memphis, we just got a call from our doctor and they’re about to take her across state lines to get an abortion.”

Zachary said he had called the governor’s office in an unsuccessful effort to stop the girl from crossing state lines.

In his letter to Lee, the ACLU said the “bill harms young people’s ability to access the support of those they trust when they need it most and is an unprecedented attack on the First Amendment right to free speech and expression.”

Davidson said when abortion is restricted or banned, the impacts “fall hardest on those already facing unequal barriers to health care, especially young people, people with limited incomes, LGBTQ+ people, and Black and Brown people.”

While most teenagers who seek an abortion involve their parents, the legislation doesn’t account for “complicated family situations” that may make seeking parental consent for an abortion “unsafe or even impossible,” according to the letter. 

The legislation also raises “several significant constitutional concerns,” Davidson said. The bill language is “unworkably vague,” he said, noting neither the bill nor state law defines the terms “recruits,” “harbors” or “transports” that are criminalized under the legislation, adding a bill sponsor said during debate that to “recruit” could include “just about anything.”

The legislation provides no help for pregnant teens in abusive family environments where the ACLU said disclosing pregnancy status may create a

risk of physical or psychological harm. Nor does it consider situations where a minor’s parent is absent or estranged to the point where obtaining notarized consent is not possible. These are not hypothetical scenarios but ”the harrowing realities of many pregnant young people across this state,” Davidson wrote.

The fiscal note for the amendment estimates the law would lead to 1.86 convictions per year.

The bill received final approval on votes on 74-24 in the House and 25-4 in the Senate. 

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