For 50 years, pro-life advocates around the country, including many Catholics, fought to end the constitutional right to abortion established in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade.
On June 24, 2022, that fight took a new turn when the Supreme Court, in its decision in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization concerning a Mississippi law banning abortion after 15 weeks, overturned the precedent set in Roe, putting the decision about abortion laws in the hands of state and federal legislatures.
In the year since, Tennessee has become a national leader in prohibiting abortion and protecting the unborn.
“Tennessee has been ahead of many other states in preparation for the end of the precedent set by the Roe v. Wade case, allowing abortion on demand across the country,” explained Rick Musacchio, executive director of the Tennessee Catholic Conference, which represents the interests of the three dioceses in the state before government officials. “The pro-life community had been working and praying for an end to abortion.
“Eight years before the Dobbs decision, a years-long effort to amend the Tennessee State Constitution culminated with adoption of a clarification that the state constitution did not provide greater access to abortion than the U.S. Constitution allowed,” Musacchio explained. “Then, in 2019, the Tennessee General Assembly passed the Human Life Protection Act, known as the Trigger Law, that would take effect if the Roe case were ever to be overturned on the federal level. When that happened with the Dobbs case, the process began.”
Once the Dobbs decision changed the landscape, attention focused on the details of the Human Life Protection Act.
“It contained a unique enforcement process banning abortion,” explained Musacchio.
The affirmative defense provision of the law created the possibility criminal charges could be brought against medical professionals, including those following the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services developed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who are providing necessary health care for women with truly life-threatening complications of pregnancy.
The Ethical and Religious Directives prohibit abortion but provide for protocols to save the life of a mother.
Concerns about possible legal challenges to the Human Life Protection Act led to changes in the law to protect medical professionals providing legitimate health care and women who are facing grave medical complications.
In the end, “the General Assembly reached a compromise that clearly spelled out the specific types of treatment for life-threatening complications to pregnancies that are not abortions,” Musacchio said. “This compromise leaves Tennessee with one of the strongest abortion laws in the country that is broadly supported by members of the General Assembly.”
Much of the debate since Roe has been about determining what a viable life actually means, Musacchio explained. Under Roe, it was defined as when the child can begin to survive outside the womb of the mother.
“Catholic healthcare efforts look at the same embryo and asks, ‘Could this embryo, with time and nutrition, grow to become a viable life?’” Musacchio said. “That’s why Catholic ethics talk about life beginning at conception because only time and nutrition are necessary for that embryo to develop. Nothing else has to be added.”
The current law reflects that view of life, Musacchio said.
“That was a culmination of a years-long effort of prayer and work … to call attention to the value of life,” Musacchio said. “This is a life issue and is the root of Catholic social teaching, which drives our role in society.
“Faithful citizenship in the creation of laws has effectively ended abortion in Tennessee,” he said.
Already making a difference
In the year since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, pro-life organizations have been able to make a positive difference in women’s lives.
Mulier Care is a non-profit organization that provides assistance to women facing crisis or unplanned pregnancies, including pregnancy testing, ultrasounds, education, and more.
“We have had the opportunity to see women who thought that they were only six weeks along when in fact they were closer to 14 weeks along,” explained Jessica Johnson, executive director of Mulier Care. “On some of those occasions we were even able to tell them the gender of their baby.
“These women connected with their baby through seeing them on the ultrasound and the thought of ending that life that was clearly shown became unfathomable,” she said.
But there is an increased level of urgency for Mulier Care since the Dobbs ruling “because the women know that they cannot get an abortion in Tennessee, so they are trying to get out of state as quickly as possible,” explained Lori Kaylor, who served as executive director of Mulier Care from April 2021 until September 2022.
“We have expanded our marketing to reach more women before they make the decision to go out of state,” added Johnson. “Because of those efforts, we are seeing more women who are needing help with material and resource support. These women are more willing to parent their child now that they know where to find support.”
These efforts have allowed Mulier Care to intervene before any out-of-state travel begins, helping women understand that there are other options.
“We want to reach as many women as possible to provide them with the education, advocacy, community resources and support to help them make an informed decision for them and their family,” Johnson said. “The hope is that we can expand our services and staff to serve more of these women.”
For more information or to support Mulier Care, visit muliercare.org.
With a strong anti-abortion state law now in place, Musacchio said, it’s time to focus efforts on other pro-life issues. “We continue to focus on life issues and to support the common good,” he said.
Some of the biggest pro-life issues facing the state revolve around ending the death penalty and reducing gun violence, Musacchio explained.
“A 50-year course of prayer and work brought an end to abortion in Tennessee,” he said. “Now, we have other life issues to focus on as we go forward, encouraging our political leaders to, in so many areas, respect life from conception to natural death.”