Tennessee passes abortion restriction bill

Tennessee passes abortion restriction bill
© Stefani Reynolds

Tennessee passed sweeping legislation Friday seeking to place restrictions on abortion, becoming the latest state to try to curtail access to the procedure. 

The bill, which passed 23-5 in the state Senate, was one of several pieces of legislation that had been put on pause during the coronavirus pandemic, but it was boosted by new momentum after negotiations between the two legislative chambers. 

Among other things, the legislation bans abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which could take place early as six weeks and if the procedure is taking place because of the fetus’s race or sex or if there has been a diagnosis of Down Syndrome. It also bans abortions for minors in custody of the Department of Children's Services and scraps the current option to petition a judge for permission for the procedure. 

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The bill also mandates the physician performing the abortion to inform the mother of the gestational age of the fetus and conduct an ultrasound before the procedure.

The legislation includes an exception if a woman’s life is in danger but does not provide exceptions for rape or incest.

Gov. Bill Lee (R) backs the legislation, praising it as “the strongest pro-life law in our state’s history.”

“One of the most important things we can do to be pro-family is to protect the rights of the most vulnerable in our state, and there is none more vulnerable than the unborn,” he tweeted.

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Anti-abortion groups praised the law, which is one of several so-called heartbeat bills passed across the nation.

“Tennessee’s landmark new law includes some of the strongest protections in the nation for unborn children and their mothers,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List. “This law recognizes the humanity of the unborn child by stopping abortion as soon as a heartbeat can be detected, protecting them from lethal discrimination in the womb, and ending late-term abortions after five months, when unborn babies can feel excruciating pain.” 

Critics slammed the legislation, noting that it was passed while the Senate’s rules were suspended and claiming the law is unconstitutional.

"This is a 60-page bill that we're bringing up at midnight," Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro (D) told The Tennessean. "This is the most notable bill we'll pass this year. We're doing it in a closed Capitol."

“It is a disgrace that in the face of a true public health crisis, Tennessee politicians wasted their time with this last-minute move to attack abortion access before closing up shop this session. We know that the goal of the politicians behind this bill is simple: a total ban on safe, legal abortion. Politicians know that this bill is blatantly unconstitutional,” added Alexis McGill Johnson, acting president of Planned Parenthood. 

Several similar bills have already been passed, but others were struck down in Mississippi, Ohio and other states.

However, conservative activists have said they are determined to push forward with their efforts to pass similar bills to try to bring a case to the Supreme Court, which they hope would result in the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the original decision legalizing abortion. 

Planned Parenthood later launched a lawsuit against the bill to try to prevent it from being adopted.

“Enough is enough. It is abhorrent that Gov. Lee and politicians in Tennessee are exploiting the fear and uncertainty of a global pandemic to push their cruel anti-abortion agenda. This opportunistic attack on our reproductive rights, passed in the middle of the night under the cover of darkness, will disproportionately impact Black Tennesseans due to systemic oppression and concerted efforts to stifle their most basic rights and freedoms. We won’t stand for this, and we are going to do everything possible to fight back against this extremely harmful law,” said Johnson.