Tennessee is latest state to try to give men the right to stop abortions


A recently introduced bill would allow a man to seek an injunction to block an abortion just by asserting he is the father.

Conservative legislators would like to give Tennessee men the right to stop women from having an abortion simply by claiming paternity. But with this bill, men don't even have to prove they're actually the father. 

Earlier this month, Tennessee GOP state Sen. Mark Pody introduced a bill that would allow a man to seek an injunction to block a woman from obtaining an abortion by asserting he is the father. Pody is a staunch anti-abortion legislator who tried to get a bill passed in 2019 that would effectively ban abortions at six weeks of pregnancy, when many don't even know they are pregnant.

In the state House, the bill is sponsored by Republican Rep. Jerry Sexton, an enthusiastic backer of Trump's attempt to reverse the outcome of the 2020 election, who has also mused that white people might one day become slaves. 

This new bill would allow anyone who says they are the child's biological father to get an injunction blocking the abortion. They don't even have to take any steps to prove their paternity, and the mother doesn't get a chance to say they're not the father. 

Normally, when unmarried couples in Tennessee want to affirm that a man is the father of a child, both the mother and the father must execute a signed and sworn statement saying so. Under the proposed bill, the pregnant person is now entirely cut out of the process. The man simply has to sign a document saying he's the father, and the bill explicitly states that he is not required to provide DNA evidence as proof. It sets up a situation where someone could be blocked from having an abortion by someone who isn't even the father of the child. 

Unsurprisingly, what is missing from the law is any requirement that the man claiming paternity provide any care, financial or otherwise, for the person experiencing the pregnancy or the eventual child. All he has to prove at the hearing to block the abortion is that he signed the piece of paper saying he's the father and that there is a "reasonable probability" the woman will have an abortion. 

Forcing people to carry pregnancies to term, particularly absent proper care, can have deadly consequences, and those consequences can hit Black women and children especially hard. In Tennessee, Black women are three times more likely to die from complications during childbirth than white women. Black infants die at nearly twice the rate of their white counterparts.

Further, there are very few supports in place to help people through their pregnancy. Tennessee refused the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, and it hasn't expanded family or medical leave for pregnant people. 

Tennessee isn't the only state that has tried to give men a veto over women's bodies when it comes to abortion. In 2017, Arkansas passed a similar law that would allow the woman's husband, parent, guardian, or doctor to sue to stop the abortion or collect civil damages from a provider if an abortion was performed. There's no exception even if the husband or father raped the woman. 

Arkansas is enjoined from enforcing that law right now. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Reproductive Rights sued to block the law right after it was passed, and it has bounced around the Arkansas and Eighth Circuit courts since then. 

That same year, Oklahoma legislators proposed a law that would have required informed consent from the father, but it didn't make it all the way through the legislative chambers. 

Each of these attempts to give men a veto over women's bodies flies in the face of existing United States Supreme Court precedent. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the court struck down a law that would have required women to give notice to their husbands before having an abortion. The court found that a spousal notification requirement wouldn't just make an abortion marginally more difficult to obtain or more expensive — it could make it impossible, particularly in instances where spousal abuse was a factor.

Further, the Supreme Court found that such a provision would seriously harm women's autonomy, noting that "[t]he husband's interest in the life of the child his wife is carrying does not permit the State to empower him with this troubling degree of authority over his wife."

This is well-settled law, with Casey having been decided nearly 30 years ago, but that won't stop conservative legislators from continuing to push for men to control the bodies of pregnant women.