Tennessee House Passes Bill That Would Ban Abortions After Detection of Fetal Heartbeat

The Tennessee House of Representatives passed a bill on March 7 that would ban abortions in the state after the detection of an unborn baby’s heartbeat, which typically happens between six to eight weeks after conception.

The measure was approved 65-21 and is set to pass to the state Senate.

“Except in a medical emergency that necessitates an immediate abortion of a woman’s pregnancy to avert her death or for which a delay will create serious risk of substantial and irreversible impairment of major bodily function (medical emergency),” abortions will be disallowed if the physician detects the fetal heartbeat, the bill, HB0077, stated.

The doctor who believes abortion is necessary due to a medical emergency must note his or her belief in the prospective mother’s medical record that the abortion was necessary and must detail the exact condition of the woman that he or she thinks would lead to substantial and irreversible impairment.

If it’s not a medical emergency and the doctor performs an abortion after the heartbeat was detected, the doctor could face a felony charge if the bill is passed.

“Colleagues, we cannot continue to allow the slaughter of the unborn while we hope for better circumstances,” state Rep. Micah Van Huss, a Republican and the bill’s sponsor, told his colleagues on the House floor prior to the vote, reported The Tennessean.

“It is not overly complicated,” added state Rep. Matthew Hill, deputy speaker and a Republican. “We have a responsibility as the representatives of our districts, of our citizens, to ensure that life, innocent life, is protected in all its stages. We will be able to inject some common sense into our code.”

Mothers and state Reps. Esther Helton and Mary Littleton, both Republicans, spoke of their own experiences giving birth and voted for the bill.

State Rep. Gloria Johnson, a Democrat, wanted to add an amendment that would allow abortions at any point during the pregnancy in cases of incest or rape but wasn’t able to do so.

State Rep. London Lamar, a Democrat, spoke and suggested she was the only representative currently at childbearing age, prompting jeers.

“I think I’m one of the only women in this house who can still have children,” Lamar said. “No woman, including myself, should have to carry a rapist’s baby.”

State Senate Speaker Randy McNally, a Republican, said in February that he was going to monitor what happened in other states when they passed similar bills.

“I think we’ll move fairly slowly on it and make sure that we craft the legislation so that’s either constitutional or not proceed with it,” he said, reported Nashville Public Radio. “I think if the AG [Attorney General] says it’s constitutionally suspect then we probably would have to go to another source to represent us because he’d have a hard time defending it, given his opinion.”

A pregnant woman holding her stomach
Stock photo of a pregnant woman holding her stomach. (Arteida Mjeshtri/Unsplash)

Herbert Slatery, the AG, has said that the effort was “constitutionally suspect.” Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, though, has come out in support of the legislation. “I would support any bill that reduces the number of abortions in the state,” he said in January.

State Rep. Glen Casada told The Associated Press around the same time that he thinks the issue would eventually be taken up by the Supreme Court.

“I think it’s a fight worth having in front of the Supreme Court. I really do,” said Casada.

Other states have been advancing or passing so-called heartbeat bills. Iowa passed a bill in 2018 but it was struck down earlier this year by a federal judge, following judges declaring similar laws in Arkansas and North Dakota unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court has so far declined to take up the issue but both sides expect the judges will, at some point, weigh in.

In Tennessee, a federal appellate court threw out a lawsuit last year that attempted to target a vote for a state constitutional amendment against abortion passed by voters in 2014. The amendment states that nothing in the state constitution “secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion.”

Since the passage of the amendment, lawmakers have passed several bills restricting abortions, including a 48-hour waiting period that requires counseling for women seeking abortions. In 2017, the state banned abortions after 20 weeks on unborn babies deemed likely to be born healthy by doctors.