Tennessee's abortion waiting period trial goes to judge

TRAVIS LOLLER
FILE - In this Aug. 12, 2019 file photo, people wait for a Senate hearing to begin to discuss a fetal heartbeat abortion ban, or possibly something more restrictive in Nashville, Tenn. Expert witnesses disagree on whether Tennessee’s 48-hour waiting period before abortion helps or hinders women’s decision making. Testifying in federal court on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019, Priscilla Coleman said women seeking abortions experience high levels of ambivalence and uncertainty. The psychology professor at Bowling Green State University said it makes sense that women should be given time to make the decision. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A federal judge will have to decide which experts to believe in a trial over Tennessee's 48-hour waiting period law for abortions.

Over the course of a four-day trial in Nashville that concluded Thursday, the state tried to show that the law, which requires women to make two separate trips to a clinic at least 48 hours apart, benefits women by allowing them time to reflect on their decisions. Attorneys representing five of the state's seven abortion clinics argued the law provides no benefits and causes significant burdens.

Experts for both sides agreed that some women seeking abortions are uncertain, and some women who go through with an abortion later regret their decision. But they differed on whether those constituted a large or small percentage of the women seeking abortions. The experts also disagreed on whether Tennessee's 48-hour waiting period would make any difference for those women.

On Thursday, attorneys for the state introduced a study from Utah on the effects of a 72-hour waiting period there. It found that 8% of participating women who attended an initial counselling visit later said they were no longer seeking an abortion.

Questioned about the study, Antonia Biggs, a social psychologist researcher at the University of California San Francisco, agreed that some women change their minds about having an abortion or are uncertain to begin with. But she noted that the study did not find that Utah's mandatory waiting period caused women to change their minds or that it was otherwise beneficial to women.

Biggs also testified that there is no evidence that abortion causes women to have mental health problems. She said a national study comparing women seeking abortions who were just under the cutoff date to obtain them with a group of women who were over the cutoff and were turned away from clinics found no difference in the rates of issues like depression and post-traumatic stress.

Under cross-examination Biggs said the study did not follow the mental health outcomes of women in states with waiting periods who changed their minds about having an abortion, although there were only three women like that identified in the study. She rebutted testimony from earlier in the week by Priscilla Coleman, a psychology professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, who said that abortion is associated with mental health problems.

Coleman testified that she believes most of the scientific literature on abortion is politically biased in favor of abortions.

Thursday also included testimony for the state from a Memphis obstetrician and gynecologist who participates in a controversial network that attempts to halt the effects of abortion-inducing medication. Dr. Michael Podraza said that through that work he has "personal experience with women who have changed their minds about an abortion."

Tennessee's waiting period law went into effect in mid-2015, and Podraza said he has seen several women since then who wanted to try to reverse a medical abortion that was already underway. Some of those women then changed their minds a second time and followed through with the abortion, he testified. These reversals happened in spite of the waiting period.

Clinic directors previously testified the wait period causes women financial hardship and stress. They also said the two-visit requirement poses logistical challenges for patients and clinics that cause abortions to be delayed far beyond the 48 hours required by law, pushing some women into surgical abortions, which have greater risks of complications. A few women are pushed beyond the time when they can receive an abortion altogether.

Tennessee is one of 14 states with laws requiring women to make two trips to an abortion clinic according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights.

In determining whether Tennessee's waiting period violates the U.S. Constitution, U.S. District Judge Bernard Freidman must determine whether it places an undue burden on women seeking abortion. It's a subjective standard that has caused some waiting period laws to be struck down and others upheld, depending on the specific circumstances of the state.

After both sides rested their cases on Thursday, Friedman said he would rule as quickly as possible.