Tennessee Gov. Introduces New Bill Banning Abortions Where Fetal Heartbeat Is Detected

By Janita Kan
Janita Kan
Janita Kan
Janita Kan is a reporter based in New York covering the Justice Department, courts, and First Amendment.
January 23, 2020 Updated: January 23, 2020

Tennessee is taking further steps to protect the lives of unborn children. State Gov. Bill Lee announced on Thursday that he will push for comprehensive restrictions on abortions this year, including a new version of a bill that would prohibit the procedure where a fetal heartbeat is detected.

The state previously passed a so-called “heartbeat bill” in the House of Representatives last year but it failed to gain support in the Senate. Republican state senators said they were concerned that the law could get struck down in court on constitutional grounds.

The proposed heartbeat bill, Lee said, will include a new approach that would include bans on abortion at two-week gestational age intervals if the bill is struck down in court. This approach, which was modeled after Missouri’s law, would also include a severability clause.

The new law, which still has not been finalized, will likely include provisions requiring a mother to undergo an ultrasound prior to an abortion and prohibiting an abortion provider from performing the procedure they know was sought because of the race, sex, health, or disability diagnosis of the unborn child.

“I believe that every human life is precious, and we have a responsibility to protect it,” Lee said in a statement on Thursday. “Today, Tennessee is taking a monumental step in celebrating, cherishing, and defending life at every stage. I’m grateful to be joined by so many leaders in our state who are boldly standing up for our most vulnerable.”

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, who raised concerns about a similar bill last year, said in a statement that he was “ecstatic” for the proposed bill.

“The many provisions of this bill represent great leaps forward for the cause of life in Tennessee. The destination has always been clear. The issue has been identifying the proper vehicle. We now have the proper vehicle,” McNally said. “This comprehensive, tiered approach is our best chance of advancing the cause of life without sacrificing the gains we have made.”

Several states including Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Ohio have passed their own version of the “heartbeat bills.” Many of these bills have led to a series of legal challenges in courts. These states are hoping that the lawsuits could be a vehicle to challenge the 1973 landmark decision Roe v. Wade, which protects a woman’s access to abortion, in the Supreme Court. Several courts across the country have already invalidated the “heartbeat bill,” such as in Kentucky.

The Supreme Court is preparing to hear a case regarding state laws that put restrictions on abortions. That case asks the court to decide whether an unconstitutional burden has been placed on women seeking abortions after Louisiana passed a law requiring doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges within 30 miles of where the procedure was taking place. Although the right to abortion is not the focus issue of the case, it has garnered significant attention as the case could provide people with some insight into the top court’s attitude toward the procedure, since this case would be the first for President Donald Trump’s two new appointees—Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, 12,140 abortions were performed in Tennessee in 2017, although not all of the abortions were provided to residents of the states. Moreover, the abortion rate in the state declined 14 percent between 2014 and 2017, from 10.7 to 9.2 abortions per 1000 women of reproductive age.

Janita Kan
Janita Kan is a reporter based in New York covering the Justice Department, courts, and First Amendment.