On Friday, the Tennessee legislature passed a bill banning abortion after a fetal heartbeat can be detected – generally after 6 weeks of gestation. The bill was passed as part of larger budget negotiations held between Tennessee’s two legislative chambers. Its passage came as a shock to many pro-choice advocates, as the bill was not on the legislative agenda. The bill is expected to be signed into law by Republican Gov. Bill Lee.
The bill classifies as felony all abortions after 6 weeks, meaning providers performing abortions after this could face up to 15 years in jail and a $10,000 fine. The bill includes a severability clause, meaning that if the 6-week ban is struck down in court, new legislation will be automatically enacted banning abortions after 8 weeks, as well as 10, 12, 15, 18, 20, 21, 22, 23, and 24 weeks if each of the aforementioned bans is struck down. The bill provides no exceptions in the case of rape or incest, although it does include an exception if the life of the woman is in danger.
Additionally, the bill bans all abortions performed on the basis of sex, race, or because the fetus has been diagnosed with Down Syndrome. All minors in the custody of the Department of Children’s services are also banned from having abortions. Doctors are required to complete a number of tasks before a woman can have an abortion, such as forcing the woman to hear the fetal heartbeat and see images of the fetus generated from a legally required ultrasound. All abortion clinics must post a sign in their waiting room informing patients that a chemically induced abortion may be able to be reversed, although there is no medical evidence supporting this claim.
Multiple lawmakers in Tennessee have made it clear that one of the goals of the bill is to bring a court case to the Supreme Court in the hopes of overturning Roe v. Wade. Tennessee Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, commented that “we know something on its face is going to have to be unconstitutional to challenge Roe…that’s part of it. But we want to give our bill the best chance possible to get there.” He went on to state that the bill will create “multiple shots” for Tennessee to bring the case to the Supreme Court.
The passage of this bill continues Tennessee’s history of enacting restrictions on abortions. The state already mandates a 48-hour waiting period before an abortion can take place, as well as prevents minors from having abortions without parental consent. In 2014, Tennessee amended its constitution to state that nothing in it guarantees a woman’s right to an abortion. In 2019, Tennessee introduced a bill that would automatically outlaw abortion if Roe v. Wade is overturned.
The ACLU responded to the passage of the bill by stating that the bill “effectively outlaws abortion in the state of Tennessee.” Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the Tennessee chapter of the ACLU, called the bill “dangerous” and “flatly unconstitutional.” She charged lawmakers with using the bill “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.” She went on to declare that the ACLU would sue the state in response.
Sources: Tennessean 6/19/20; FederalCharges.com; Tennessean 3/2/20; Mother Jones 1/23/20; ACLU 6/19/20