Abortion legislation update: ‘Heartbeat bill’ dies, monument to ‘unborn’ and defunding bills arise

The so-called “heartbeat bill,” perhaps the most controversial measure on abortions pending in the Legislature this year, fell by the wayside last week in a House subcommittee. But anti-abortion legislators came up with some new bills.

-Sen. Steve Southerland (R-Morristown) and Rep. Jerry Sexton (R-Bean Station) propose commissioning of a “Tennessee Monument to Unborn Children” that would be placed on state capitol grounds. (HB2381).

-Sen. Mike Bell (R-Athens) and Rep. Jimmy Matlock (R-Lenoir City) introduced HB2251 with the declared goal of defunding Planned Parenthood in Tennessee, though the filed bill does not do so directly.

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Van Huss pushes ‘heartbeat bill’ against wishes of some anti-abortion activists

Even though some anti-abortion activists oppose the idea, state Rep. Micah Van Huss says he will push for a vote on the so-called “heartbeat bill” to prohibit abortions once a fetal heartbeat can be detected. It’s scheduled for a hearing Wednesday in the House Health Subcommittee, the panel that voted 5-4 to in 2017 to postpone any action until 2018, a move Van Huss now says “in essence doomed over 3,500 babies to death.”

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Matlock push to ‘defund’ Planned Parenthood bashed by Democrats

State Rep. Jimmy Matlock, a candidate for the Republican nomination to the 2nd Congressional District seat, has announced a push for passage of legislation to totally “defund” Planned Parenthood in Tennessee, contending there is currently a “false narrative” that no taxpayer dollars support the organization.

Legislative Democrats held a news conference Wednesday to denounce the bill, reports the News Sentinel (with Tennessean input), and a Planned Parenthood spokesperson said the proposal would have a “devastating impact” on preventive care services for women such as birth control and cancer screenings.

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Appeals court upholds TN constitutional amendment on abortion

By a 3-0 vote, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals today rejected a legal challenge to the 2014 vote that added an amendment to the Tennessee Constitution dealing with abortion, overturning a lower federal court ruling that called for a recount. The 6th Circuit decision, on the other hand, is in line with a state court ruling.

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TN Planned Parenthood leader stepping down after 17 years

Jeff Teague, long-time president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Middle and East Tennessee, has announced he is leaving the group Friday to “explore other opportunities,” reports the Times Free Press.

The group provides reproductive health services, including abortion, and has been at the center of any number of political and court battles in Tennessee over the years. It operates centers in Nashville and Knoxville.

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Haslam signs bill that, he says, is NOT a ’20-week abortion ban’

Gov. Bill Haslam today signed into law the latest bill restricting abortion in Tennessee, despite some calls for a veto. Here’s the gubernatorial statement sent to media:

“I have reviewed the final language of SB 1180/HB 1189 and its potential impact.

“The Tennessee Infants Protection Act prohibits purposely performing post-viability abortions, except when a physician determines in his or her good faith medical judgment that either the unborn child is not viable or that the procedure is necessary to prevent serious risk to the mother.  Rather than being a “20-week abortion ban,” as some have described it, the bill requires physicians to assess viability beginning at 20 weeks gestational age, absent a medical emergency.

 “The Tennessee Attorney General has said he would defend this law, and the United States Supreme Court has not yet decided the mental health exception issue discussed in the Attorney General’s opinion. For those reasons, I have signed this legislation into law.”

UPDATE/Note: Here are a couple of contrasting press release reactions:

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Legislature gives final approval to ban on abortions after 20 weeks

The House voted 68-18 Wednesday to send the governor a bill that generally prohibits abortions in Tennessee after 20 weeks of pregnancy. The Senate approved the measure with a 27-3 vote Monday and Gov. Bill Haslam is virtually certain to sign it.

The House vote, pretty much along partisan lines, came after defeat of Democrat-sponsored amendments, including one by Rep. Brenda Gilmore of Nashville that would have excluded pregnancies involving rape or incest from the bill’s provisions.

“With this legislation we have an opportunity to show that we do protect and respect life in Tennessee,” said Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, House sponsor of the measure, in his closing comments after debate.

On the other side, Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville, said the measure is unfair to women and, “What you need to do is punish men who can’t keep their pants on and their zippers up.”’

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House sub kills ‘fetal heartbeat’ bill

On a 5-4 vote, the House Health Subcommittee has put off any consideration of a so-called “fetal heartbeat” bill until next year. The measure would have prohibited an abortion once a fetus heartbeat could be detected, which typically occurs within six weeks of conception.

The bill by Rep. Micah Van Huss, R-Gray, (HB108) had been deemed “constitutionally suspect” by Attorney General Herbert Slatery in a recent legal opinion. (Previous post HERE.)

Though there was no discussion of the measure Wednesday, there was a week earlier, reports the Johnson City Press.

In a lengthy subcommittee hearing last week before a vote on the bill was postponed, Van Huss said as a Christian, he believed it was his moral obligation to pursue the legislation.

“For me, the answer to abortion is a simple one — God says in the book of Jeremiah: ‘Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born, I consecrated you,’” the lawmaker said to the panel.

By blocking up to 90 percent of currently legal abortions, Van Huss said the bill had the potential to save thousands of unborn babies each year in the state.

But some at the meeting last week, including the man who managed the 2014 campaign to pass a state constitutional amendment giving lawmakers broader power to regulate and restrict abortion, argued against the bill.

Brian Harris, president of Tennessee Right to Life, warned passing Van Huss’ bill could lead to lost ground for the pro-life movement and its supporters in the General Assembly.

“The national pro-abortion attorneys that are coming into our state to argue against those statutes are using as Exhibit A the statutes you’ve already passed,” Harris said. “You bring an unconstitutional ban before them, and it’s only going to hearten their case.”

The panel did approve a less stringent bill sponsored by Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, (HB1189) that puts new restrictions on abortions before 20 weeks. That came on a voice vote after about 45 minutes of debate,  reports The Tennessean.

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AG says ‘heartbeat bill’ is constitutionally suspect

A new state attorney general’s opinion says pending legislation to prohibit abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected is “constitutionally suspect.”

On the other hand, the opinion also says a provision within the bill (SB244) requiring women to get an ultrasound before an abortion is constitutionally defensible.

The so-called “heartbeat bill,” sponsored by Sen. Mae Beaves, R-Mount Juliet, and Rep. Micah Van Huss of Jonesborough, runs counter to past federal court decisions, says the opinion, citing rulings against similar laws in Arkansas and North Dakota.

The full opinion is HERE.

With President Trump, sponsors of bills broadening TN abortion ban optimistic about passage, court challenges

State Rep.  Micah Van Huss has filed a bill (HB108) that would prohibit abortions when a fetal heartbeat can be detected, typically around the eighth week of pregnancy, while Rep. Terry Lynn Weaver is sponsoring a bill (HB101) that would prohibit abortions after 20 weeks.

Both bills would violate current abortion rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court, but Van Huss, R-Gray, tells the Johnson City Press that those rulings can change with President Donald Trump appointing new justices for approval of a Republican-controlled Congress.

Van Huss said Thursday that the point during gestation in which a heartbeat can be detected is the earliest markable point in pregnancy, usually between six and 12 weeks, but at an average of eight.

“It’s quite a jump,” he said of the proposed change from the state’s current criminal abortion statute, which sets the threshold at the point of viability of the fetus, which is normally between 24 and 26 weeks.

“If enacted, it will eliminate about 90 percent of abortions in the state, and it goes in tandem with my belief that unborn children should have the right to life,” he said.

…Van Huss said he’s banking on newly elected President Donald Trump to appoint a pro-life justice to the Supreme Court, which may be asked to consider early abortion bills.

“I can’t say whether or not I expect it to go to the Supreme Court, it’s not the intention of the bill,” he said. “But if it does go to the Supreme Court, I would hope they would rule to protect life.”

Weaver, R-Lancaster, had a similar bill last year, but never pushed for a vote in a House subcommittee when it appeared likely to fail. She tells The Tennessean things seem different this year.

“I think the climate and the culture, the pendulum is swinging…It’s the right thing to do…”There’s a time and a season for everything… People are understanding, our culture is changing. These are individual babies.”

Also from The Tennessean:

“None of this is about protecting the health and safety of women,” said Jeff Teague, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Middle & Eastern Tennessee.

“Given the results of the election and the promise of the president to appoint justices who are going to be hostile to Roe, I think it is part of nationwide strategy to do everything possible to get cases back before the Supreme Court to overturn that decision to make abortion illegal and ban it in this country.”