By Chris Turner
House Bill 2263 was passed late Thursday morning June 18 and the companion Senate Bill 2196 was passed just after midnight Friday morning. The votes in both chambers were by landslide margins and Governor Bill Lee has promised to sign it once it arrives on his desk. The legislation closely resembles pro-life legislation Lee proposed in January, and that many thought derailed in this session by the COVID-19 pandemic. A late surge to close out the legislative session brought the bill from a figurative scrap heap to passage before legislators were scheduled to adjourn for the year.
One of the primary sponsors of HB 2263 was Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Old Hickory, who spoke highly of the bill and its final draft, saying that it is “a very just and a very fair law,” adding she was hopeful its passage “can protect more babies and more life.”
The bill, which is considered one of the strictest pro-life legislations in the country, includes a provision that makes an abortion illegal except to save the life of the mother or in cases of serious risk once a once a heartbeat is detected, which can generally be as early as six weeks.
The bill also codifies that it is a Class C felony in “performing or inducing, or attempting to perform or induce, an abortion upon a pregnant woman if the person knows the woman is seeking the abortion because of: The sex of the unborn child, the race of the unborn child or a prenatal diagnosis, test, or screening indicating Down syndrome or potential for Down syndrome in the unborn child.”
The bill requires a physician to:
- Determine and inform the mother of the gestational age of the fetus.
- Allow the mother to hear the fetal heartbeat.
- Conduct an ultrasound and display the images for the mother to see.
- Explain fetus’s dimensions and which external body parts and internal organs are present and visible.
It has been a long road over the past two years for pro-life legislation to clear the House and Senate and make it to a governor’s desk. Last year, SB 1236 was introduced that would have clearly defined life as beginning at conception and many legal experts felt it had a strong chance to challenge Roe v. Wade and potentially see the Supreme court overturn that ruling. Tennessee Baptist Mission Board Executive Director/President Randy C. Davis represented Tennessee Baptists and testified before a senate sub-committee expressing strong support for that bill to make it out of committee and back to the full senate. The bill effectively died in committee and was not taken up. Similar bills proposed this legislative session have also quickly died.
It is believed that once Lee signs HB 2263 into law, it will quickly be challenged in court. The bill bans abortion at 10 different stages of fetal gestation from the heartbeat up to 24 weeks. The idea is that the bill gives the court the option of deciding when the law can ban abortion.
Not everyone is a fan of the laddered structure of the bill. David Fowler, president of Family Action Council of Tennessee said the law affirms the absolute right to life, but intentionally leaves it up to a federal judge to decide, as a matter of public policy, when that life should be protected.
“If life begins at conception and if we believe the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution is wrong, then I would have preferred the legislature just say that (life begins at conception). By ‘laddering,’ the legislation effectively concedes the fundamental proposition that federal courts, not state lawmakers, get to decide state abortion policy.”
Fowler did appreciate the provision requiring providers to notify women seeking a chemical abortion of the possibility of reversing the process after the first of the two different drugs required for the abortion is administered and before the second dose is taken. The ultrasound provision, he said, may prove helpful but the courts have already said that, to be constitutional, the doctor is free to advise the woman that she should not hear the heartbeat or view the ultrasound.
Davis is hopeful the bill will have an impact but is also cautious as to the effectiveness of the future law.
“I am thankful for the state representatives and senators taking a stand for the unborn,” he said. “While I applaud these outstanding measures, I am grieved at the missed opportunity for our lawmakers to define life beginning at conception as it was presented last year in SB 1236. Obviously, I welcome any legislation that will move toward protecting more unborn Tennesseans so I’m hopeful this law will be a strong step in the right direction.”
There is no doubt the law will wind up being challenged in the court system as Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee said in a statement early Friday morning.
“As promised, we will see them in court,” she said of the state’s Lt. Gov Randy McNally. “The Tennessee General Assembly’s passage of this dangerous, flatly unconstitutional bill is unacceptable.”
The bill is not expected to reach the governor’s desk for at least another week or so. B&R