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Conservatives in Tennessee, Oklahoma Introduce “Abortion Trafficking” Bills

These bills make “criminals out of trusted adults,” one abortion advocate said.

Abortion rights activists protest in downtown Nashville, Tennessee, on June 24, 2022.

Right-wing lawmakers in Tennessee and Oklahoma have introduced “abortion trafficking” bills that would criminalize helping pregnant minors access abortions out of state. These bills mirror Idaho’s “abortion trafficking” bill, which went into effect last year but was blocked by a federal court in November.

“Under these laws, an aunt or grandma who helps a teenager get an abortion would be a ‘trafficker,’” abortion advocate Jessica Valenti said on social media. “This is exactly the legal battle happening in Idaho right now over their ‘abortion trafficking’ law — it’s (deliberately) written so broadly that it makes speech illegal.”

Both Tennessee and Oklahoma currently prohibit abortion at all stages, with limited exceptions for medical emergencies; notably, these supposed exceptions have been shown to be ineffective due to providers’ fears of facing prosecution from the state. Not only have pregnant people experiencing medical emergencies been turned away from care in these states, but recently released research estimates that total abortion bans have resulted in 4,529 rape-related pregnancies in Oklahoma and 4,993 in Tennessee over the past 18 months. Advocates say that “abortion trafficking” bills exacerbate these issues and result in the increased criminalization of out-of-state abortions.

“I want to be clear: When I say these laws target anyone who ‘helps’ a teen get an abortion, I don’t just mean someone who physically takes them out of the state,” Valenti wrote for her column Abortion, Every Day. “You could be arrested for lending a teenager gas money, or texting them the url of an out-of-state clinic.”

Tennessee’s bill, SB 1971, criminalizes any adult who “recruits, harbors, or transports” a pregnant minor within the state to obtain a “criminal abortion,” a Class C felony punishable with 3-15 years in prison and up to $10,000 in fines. This penalty applies to any out-of-state abortions, irrespective of the legality of abortions in that state, and doesn’t allow a minor’s consent to travel with the adult to obtain an abortion to be a defense to criminal liability.

“[I]nterstate travel and commerce are federally protected/only allowed to be changed by Congress, and this bill is designed to test the boundaries of what the courts will allow,” Rep. Aftyn Behn (D) said.

SB 1971 also criminalizes adults who assist minors in obtaining medication abortion pills and further would open the adult to civil lawsuits filed by the minor’s parents.

“Most minors involve a parent in their decision to get an abortion,” said Ashley Coffield, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi. “This bill makes criminals out of trusted adults, including other family members, who can help in these circumstances.”

Oklahoma’s bill, SB1778, would similarly criminalize adults who aid a minor in obtaining an abortion, even if abortions are legal in the state which they travel to, with 2-5 years imprisonment. The bill also states that the implementation of the law would be “immediately necessary for the preservation of the public peace, health or safety.” Because of this “emergency,” the bill would take effect immediately after its passage.

“Targeting trusted adults, family members, and helpers who assist minors in accessing abortion will have a chilling effect and is dangerous and irresponsible,” Coffield said. “If you know a minor who miscarries, you’re a potential suspect.”

These two bills come as right-wing lawmakers across the country have introduced 317 bills restricting abortion since January 1, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

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