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VOL. 132 | NO. 49 | Thursday, March 9, 2017

'Heartbeat Bill' Put Off a Year

By Sam Stockard

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NASHVILLE – Legislation outlawing abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected is being postponed until 2018, but a House panel voted Wednesday to restrict abortions after the 20th week, a shift from the 24-week period defining “viability.”

The House Health Subcommittee voted 5-4 to “roll” the “heartbeat bill” sponsored by Rep. Micah Van Huss until its first calendar of next year, rather than vote it up or down.

Van Huss, an East Tennessee Republican, said he will renew his fight, saying the measure can withstand constitutional muster based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to ban partial-birth abortions in 2007 after efforts to stop the procedure failed 42 times.

“So as long as there’s hope, I’ll bring the bill,” Van Huss said.

State Rep. John Ray Clemmons, who opposes the legislation, voted not to put if off until 2018.

“There were members of the other party that didn’t want the bill to pass. But instead of just taking a vote on the piece of legislation, they just delayed it until next year,” said Clemmons, a Nashville Democrat. “So now next year we’re going to be up here fighting the exact same fight and the same unconstitutional piece of legislation. And if these folks up here in the Republican Party are too afraid to vote against a bad piece of legislation, then what are they doing here?”

Tennessee Right to Life opposed the legislation in last week’s subcommittee meeting, arguing it could hurt the group’s efforts to uphold other recently passed abortion restrictions being challenged in federal court. The Legislature adopted four tougher measures over the last two years after voters gave the Legislature authority to restrict abortion with Amendment 1.

State Rep. Jeremy Faison, who previously said he doesn’t want to lose court battles and pay the legal fees for those who support abortion rights, said, “I believe it’s a noble battle, but it’s the wrong time to fight it. If things were different in courts, I would vote for it all day long.”

Faison, an East Tennessee Republican, said he hopes President Donald Trump will appoint judges with a different perspective on abortion, enabling the pro-life movement to win in court.

Jennifer Wilson, a pro-choice advocate who attended the subcommittee meeting, said she had mixed emotions on the outcomes because she felt Van Huss’ “heartbeat bill” would have been easier to fight in court than the 20-week viability bill.

“If that one had passed we could have sent it straight on to the courts immediately and hopefully gotten that one, as well as many of the previous ones, overturned,” Wilson said.

Tougher restriction advances

Legislation called the “Tennessee Infants Protection Act” by Rep. Matthew Hill, an East Tennessee Republican, prohibits abortion of a viable fetus except in medical emergency and requires testing to determine viability if a woman is at least 20 weeks pregnant.

Hill said his legislation, which was sent to the full House Health Committee on a voice vote, passes U.S. Supreme Court doctrine and is modeled on an Ohio law that has withstood legal challenges.

After hearing the testimony of two women who had late-term abortions because their unborn children were suffering debilitating illnesses around the 18th week, Hill pointed out neither one of those cases would be affected by his bill.

Hadleigh Tweedall told the legislators she had to go out of state to have the procedure because she was too far along in her pregnancy after doctors told her the child would not survive outside the womb.

“I felt like a fugitive fleeing this state to have a taboo procedure,” she said.

LaQuita Martin described the terrible feeling of finding out from doctors her unborn child’s heart was failing inside the womb. She ended the pregnancy and the child died in her husband’s arms.

“This is not black and white,” she said, noting new restrictions would have forced her to carry the child to full term and then take it to a pediatrician. “There are reasons women choose to terminate pregnancies and it’s not because they want to.”

Hill, nevertheless, said his legislation is designed to strengthen the definition viability, the ability to live outside the mother’s womb, but codifying it at 24 weeks. The performance of an abortion past that stage, unless the mother’s life or health was in danger, could lead to a Class C felony and revocation of the physician’s license.

The bill also states, however, except in a medical emergency, physicians cannot perform abortions after the beginning of the 20th week of pregnancy unless the doctor determines the “unborn child is not viable,” based on an assessment of the gestational age, weight and measurements.

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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