Tennessee legislature passes fetal heartbeat bill to ban abortions
A wide-ranging abortion restriction bill, once believed to be scrapped for the year, will now become law in Tennessee, though it will immediately face a legal challenge.
The bill, part of Gov. Bill Lee’s legislative agenda that was largely abandoned earlier this spring amid the coronavirus pandemic, found new life through last-minute budget negotiations between the House and Senate on Thursday.
It passed the Senate 23-5 just after 12:30 a.m. Friday on a party-line vote.
Later that afternoon, Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union and other abortion rights groups filed a lawsuit against the bill in U.S. District Court in Nashville.
In addition to banning abortions after the point a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which is as early as six weeks, the legislation also prohibits the procedure:
If the doctor knows that the woman is seeking an abortion because of the child’s sex or race
If the doctor knows the woman is seeking an abortion due to to a diagnosis of Down syndrome
For juveniles in custody of the Department of Children’s Services, including removing the current option to petition a judge for permission
While there is an exception to the restrictions if a woman’s life is in danger, there are no exceptions for rape or incest.
The legislation was also amended to require that abortion clinics post a sign in the waiting room and in patient rooms informing people that it may be possible to reverse a chemical abortion, and impose a fine of $10,000 for failing to do so.
Similar six-week bans have been struck down in Mississippi, Ohio and other states.
Last-minute passage despite earlier signals
The bill was passed with Senate rules suspended, as it wasn’t on the chamber’s legislative calendar, and without any members of the public present.
“This is a 60-page bill that we’re bringing up at midnight,” said Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville. “This is the most notable bill we’ll pass this year. We’re doing it in a closed Capitol.”
Republicans in the legislature have said they hope the legislation will propel their anti-abortion fight to the U.S. Supreme Court, though Tennessee’s approach, similar to legislation passed in Missouri, is not backed by National Right to Life or most other major anti-abortion groups.
While House leadership maintained in recent weeks that they plan to move forward with the bill — despite Lee saying it was no longer a priority while state government focused on the pandemic — the Senate had dug in their heels, arguing they would not pass it without the governor requesting them to do so.
But that changed in Thursday’s give-and-take between chambers on the budget.
Despite the House always planning to pass the bill, Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, spoke out on the floor while the Senate debated the legislation a chamber over.
“I feel like there was a bargain made on my reproductive health rights in order to get the budget passed,” Johnson said.
Democrat: ‘We’re going to be pushing them into the alleys’
Unlike last year’s heartbeat bill, which passed in the House but did not receive support from Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, in the Senate, the new approach includes the additional abortion restrictions and a severability clause.
If the courts strike down the six-week ban, in conjunction with the detection of a fetal heartbeat, the legislation goes on to automatically enact abortion bans at eight, 10, 12, 15, 18, 20, 21, 22, 23 and 24 weeks of gestation.
It would also make it a Class C felony for a doctor to perform an abortion in any of those situations, and the physician must also:
Determine and inform the mother of the gestational age of the fetus
Allow the woman to hear the fetal heartbeat and explain the location of the unborn child within the uterus
Conduct an ultrasound and display the images to the mother
Provide an explanation of the fetus’s dimensions and which external body parts and internal organs are present and visible
Sen. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, argued that rich women would still be able to travel to other states to have abortions.
“But poor mothers, we’re going to be pushing them into the alleys like it was years and years ago and still endangering them,” Gilmore said.
The governor announced the initiative in January, surrounded by dozens of Republican lawmakers who joined him in supporting the measure.
Planned Parenthood, ACLU challenge bill
McNally has said he believes the current version of the heartbeat bill will hold up in court, despite raising concerns last year over constitutionality. It’s unclear how the new legislation would have a better chance of passing constitutional muster.
“As promised, we will see them in court,” said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee in a statement early Friday morning, moments after the bill passed.
Friday afternoon, Planned Parenthood announced the ACLU and the Center for Reproductive Rights were filing suit with them “to stop Tennessee’s unconstitutional abortion ban.”
Plaintiffs include Memphis and Knoxville abortion clinics, along with Drs. Kimberly Looney and Nikki Zite on behalf of themselves and their patients.
“The Tennessee General Assembly’s passage of this dangerous, flatly unconstitutional bill is unacceptable,” Weinberg said. “Lawmakers used this measure in a game of political maneuvering to pass the state budget — pushing it through without regard for the actual Tennesseans who will be denied access to the care they need, including abortion.”
In April, Planned Parenthood challenged one of Lee’s executive orders that could have blocked surgical abortions during a time when the governor had placed limits on non-emergency medical procedures because of the coronavirus pandemic. A federal judge blocked the state’s attempt to limit abortion procedures.
Ashley Coffield, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Tennessee and North Mississippi, said the Senate’s last-minute approval of the legislation Friday “flies in the face of democracy.”
“In the dead of night, Tennessee politicians hellbent on chipping away at abortion access blocked citizens from entering the state Capitol while they used this draconian abortion ban to pass the state budget,” Coffield said in a statement. “While Tennesseans are concerned about their health and safety during a pandemic, politicians used women’s lives as a bargaining chip to push their political agenda.”
Adam Kleinheider, spokesman for McNally, said the legislation had previously been a priority of the Senate before the pandemic.
“The bill was a result of an exhaustive public Senate summer study and thoroughly vetted in committee this year,” Kleinheider said in a statement. “Due to conflicting House and Senate versions and the prospect of a difficult and time intensive debate, the Senate did not place it on a floor calendar during the first weeks of this limited budget-focused session.”
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, said in a statement that the group applauded Lee for making the legislation part of his agenda, as well as their “pro-life allies in the Tennessee General Assembly.”
“Tennessee’s landmark new law includes some of the strongest protections in the nation for unborn children and their mothers,” Dannenfelser said.
Black lawmakers ‘sick’ of racial insensitivity at the CapitolBlack members dismayed as House fails to pass resolution memorializing Black teenLegislature passes budget, completes business for the yearFetal heartbeat bill, ban on abortions for Down syndrome passed
Reach Natalie Allison at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @natalie_allison.
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