Tennessee’s life-saving waiting period
Pro-abortion groups abandon their fight against a Tennessee waiting period law that pro-lifers say has saved at least some unborn babies
Diana Meinweiser thinks she knows what helped save the life of an unborn child of one of her clients—a Tennessee law requiring women to wait 48 hours prior to obtaining an abortion.
Meinweiser was working as a lay counselor at the Tennessee Right to Life office in Nashville a few years ago when a young woman walked in, looking “like a deer in the headlights.” She’d arrived by accident: At the time, an abortion facility sat at 419 Welshwood Drive, just down the street from Meinweiser’s offices at 409 Welshwood. It was a common mistake.
The abortion facility had scheduled the woman for a first appointment that morning—a counseling session required under a 2015 pro-life law to take place at least 48 hours before the actual abortion procedure. Before she left for the appointment, Meinweiser gave the woman her cell number and told her to call “if she had any questions or if she needed any help” after the counseling session.
The next day, the woman called Meinweiser in tears. The abortion facility had given her information about the surgical abortion procedure during the appointment, and it scared her. She was also upset that facility staff hadn’t allowed her to see the ultrasound image of her baby.
Meinweiser connected the woman to a local pregnancy center that provided a follow-up ultrasound. When the woman saw her baby moving on the screen, she decided not to abort.
Abortion advocates have fought Tennessee’s 48-hour abortion waiting period law in court since it passed in 2015, but as of this month, that battle has come to an end. On Nov. 12, Tennessee’s attorney general announced that the deadline for pro-abortion groups to challenge an August ruling from the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had passed, meaning the ruling in favor of the law would stand.
With major abortion-related cases out of Mississippi and Texas already at the U.S. Supreme Court this year, abortion groups seem unwilling to continue their challenge of a law that appears to have had a minimal effect on the number of abortions in the state. But despite inconclusive data on the law’s effectiveness, pro-lifers point to individual cases suggesting the law gives at least some women the time they need to choose life for their babies.
Except for a few months in 2020, the law has largely remained in effect during the six-year court battle. Will Brewer, a lobbyist for Tennessee Right to Life who promoted the bill in 2015, said the number of abortions in the state has declined since that time, and he attributed the drop largely to the passing of the waiting period law. He also pointed to the 2018 closure of the Nashville abortion facility on Welshwood Drive as another outcome of the legislation.
But the direct effects are hard to determine. According to a Charlotte Lozier Institute report on Tennessee’s abortion statistics, the number of abortions in the state was already declining before 2015 and decreased only slightly between 2015 and 2018. The August opinion from the 6th Circuit emphasized that the state’s approximately 9 percent decrease in abortions from 2014 to 2016 suggested the law “did not keep a large fraction of abortion seekers from obtaining the procedure.”
As for the Nashville facility’s closure, abortionist Wesley F. Adams Jr. testified that the Nashville facility had to increase its hours to accommodate the increased visits required by the 48-hour waiting period and raise prices to cover the cost of hiring additional physicians to counsel patients. But Adams also claimed that the clinic closed because he received an offer on the building that “we couldn’t refuse.”
“It is hard to pin down,” said Stacy Dunn, director of Tennessee Right to Life, about the effectiveness of the law. She pointed to 2019 testimony from a Planned Parenthood abortionist indicating that abortion facilities don’t track reasons for “no-shows,” making it impossible to know why some patients come for their initial appointment but don’t show up for the abortion procedure. Dunn agreed that it’s hard to know what happens to women during their 48-hour waiting period. But she said the anecdotal evidence she hears from people who counsel women during that period shows “giving those girls time and information about their babies” helps them choose life.
In addition to the young woman who showed up at the Right to Life offices a few years ago, Meinweiser said she encountered about three women during her time at Tennessee Right to Life who used their 48 hours to talk to family members about their pregnancy—conversations that encouraged them to choose life. During her time working with a mobile ultrasound unit in Tennessee, she’s also seen women come to the unit for ultrasounds during their waiting periods. She said the waiting period “gives them a chance to think with their heart and come down from that crisis.”
Some research corroborates those anecdotal reports. According to a 2014 study from researcher Michael New, informed consent laws requiring women to view photos of fetal development before an abortion appear to reduce the abortion rate from 2 percent to 7 percent, while informed consent laws that include a waiting period reduce abortions from 7 percent to 12 percent. A study of Utah’s 72-hour waiting period found that 8 percent of women surveyed no longer sought abortion after their first appointment.
But Meinweiser said she wasn’t surprised when she learned that abortion facilities wouldn’t appeal the 6th Circuit’s decision—especially considering the high volume of patients they see, even with the waiting period law in place. “I think they’ve got bigger things to fight with the heartbeat bill going to the Supreme Court,” she said, referring to litigation of Texas’ heartbeat bill. “I’m thinking they’re more worried about that than a 48-hour waiting period.”
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