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VOL. 42 | NO. 5 | Friday, February 2, 2018

Anti-abortion ‘heartbeat’ bill now focuses on ultrasound

By Sam Stockard

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One attempt to severely restrict abortions fell by the wayside this week in the state Legislature, but another measure is being introduced to defund abortion clinics in Tennessee.

By necessity, Rep. Micah Van Huss turned his “heartbeat bill” into an ultrasound reporting bill after failing to find the support to pass his proposal in a subcommittee.

Van Huss (R-Jonesborough) amended his legislation prohibiting abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected and instead will give pregnant women the opportunity to have an ultrasound before undergoing an abortion. If the ultrasound is given, the bill would require a post-abortion report indicating the presence or absence of a fetal heartbeat be sent to the Department of Health for an annual report.

“Eighty percent of mothers who see an ultrasound before an abortion do no follow through with an abortion,” Van Huss told the House Health Subcommittee.

The Republican-controlled committee approved the measure on a voice vote, with opposition coming only from Democratic Reps. John Ray Clemmons of Nashville and Joanne Graves of Chattanooga.

“I do have some concerns with the legislation and what your intended effects are and the emotional harm that comes with a decision such as this,” Clemmons said.

Clemmons complained that when three major bills dealing with abortion restrictions passed in the Legislature three years ago, sponsors said those would be the end of abortion-related bills.

Van Huss pointed out he never made any promises.

“But for myself, as long as the citizens of District 6 continue to send me to Nashville I will not stop fighting for the lives of babies until abortion is abolished in this state,” Van Huss said.

Van Huss ran into opposition on his initial “heartbeat bill” from pro-life groups, including Tennessee Right to Life, which raised concerns that passing such a measure could hurt its legal efforts in the courts on other pro-life laws.

Rep. Bryan Terry, a Murfreesboro Republican who chairs the House Health Subcommittee, said Tennessee Right to Life supported Van Huss’ amended bill.

ACLU-Tennessee Executive Director Hedy Weinberg said afterward gathering information is OK as long as it’s done anonymously.

“I think he obviously has a long-term commitment to ban abortion, which … is the right of every woman to make a decision, a very difficult decision, as to what’s best for her, given her life’s circumstances,” Weinberg said.

She pointed out Van Huss didn’t have enough votes to pass the “heartbeat bill,” which she said was “clearly unconstitutional.” The ACLU successfully sued two other states that passed similar legislation, Weinberg said.

Tennessee legislators continue to lead a movement to put up barriers to women who want access to abortion services, but Tennesseans statewide believe abortion is a “very intimate, difficult decision,” she said.

“Government, politicians should not be involved in that decision,” Weinberg said.

Targeting TennCare abortion services

Flanked by House Speaker Beth Harwell, state Rep. Jimmy Matlock introduced legislation this week to cut funding to abortion providers across the state.

Saying he uncovered $1 million in state and federal money going to abortion providers for TennCare services over the past six years, Matlock noted, “The narrative exists that we have fully defunded abortion providers from receiving Tennessee taxpayer dollars. The fact is that through the form of TennCare reimbursements, abortion providers still receive some Tennessee taxpayer money.”

The legislation would direct the commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Finance & Administration to seek a waiver from the federal government to exclude abortion providers from reimbursements for services to TennCare patients. It would impact elective abortions only, according to Matlock.

Harwell, who is seeking the Republican gubernatorial nomination, said the measure would not affect the availability of health-care services for low-income women who need services such as mammograms and prenatal health care.

“We are blessed in Tennessee with 89 wonderful county health clinics and six municipal health departments, along with world-class hospitals, nonprofits, religious organizations that offer every kind of care a woman may need,” Harwell said. “I have been a strong pro-life advocate during my entire tenure as a state representative, including Amendment 1, and I am supportive of this measure.”

Even though state and federal law prohibits funds from being used for abortion services, Matlock, a Lenoir City Republican seeking an East Tennessee congressional seat, said clinics are shifting the money to other expenses such as rent, utilities and personnel, freeing up funds to pay for abortion services.

Matlock denied the legislation is a political move to damage Planned Parenthood, which has clinics in the state’s three grand divisions, and said instead it is an effort “to protect the sanctity of life.”

He wasn’t concerned, either, about the potential for an ACLU lawsuit.

“We don’t live in fear, we live in hope, and our hope is life will be protected,” he said.

Matlock declined to say exactly where he received the financial information. He noted “hardworking people inside our offices” dug up the information, and he said it could be verified by state departments.

But TennCare spokeswoman Sarah Tanksley Stockton said the department could not confirm Matlock’s financial figures because it didn’t know what factors he used for the calculation.

Stockton said federal law requires TennCare to cover family planning services and specifies that members be given “freedom of choice” in selecting a provider. TennCare doesn’t cover elective abortions but is required by federal law to cover abortions in limited circumstances such as rape, incest or endangerment of the mother’s life.

“TennCare has made payments to Planned Parenthood over the past five years, however none of these payments were for abortions,” Stockton said. “Services received were related to federally required well woman visits, obstetric visits, contraceptives or sexually transmitted diseases.”

Francine Hunt, director of Planned Parenthood, said the organization will continue to operate regardless of the legislation’s outcome. Nevertheless, she said it would prevent women from obtaining the preventative care they need at its centers.

“This bill would have a devastating impact on people who rely on Planned Parenthood for these essential services to make it harder to prevent unplanned pregnancy in Tennessee,” Hunt said. “The ironic thing here is that this bill will increase unintended pregnancies by endangering and limiting the access to care.”

Planned Parenthood, for the first time in 15 years, is backing a bill called the Women’s Health Equity Act, which would ensure insurance covers contraception and other women’s health services, Hunt said.

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger, Memphis Daily News, Knoxville Ledger and Hamilton County Herald. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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