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VOL. 41 | NO. 17 | Friday, April 28, 2017

Unworried about constitutionality, House passes 20-week abortion ban

By Sam Stockard

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The House of Representatives turned back questions about the constitutionality of legislation limiting abortions after 20 weeks and passed it overwhelmingly Wednesday morning.

In a 68-18 vote and with groups protesting in the State Capitol, the House approved a bill prohibiting abortion of a viable fetus except in a medical emergency and requiring testing to determine if a woman is at least 20 weeks pregnant.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Matthew Hill, a Republican from Jonesborough, said the bill would punish physicians who perform abortions, in violation of the law, past the 20th week of pregnancy.

“With this legislation, we have the opportunity to show we respect and protect life in the state of Tennessee,” said Hill, who also contended it would “prevent the deliberate killing of a large group of people.”

The measure goes to Gov. Bill Haslam’s desk for his signature. It passed the Senate on a 27-3 vote Monday despite concerns the state would be creating an entirely new section in the criminal code. Haslam has not committed to whether he would sign the bill.

The measure, which has been called constitutionally suspect by Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery, passed in spite of concerns raised by Memphis Democratic Reps. Raumesh Akbari and Johnnie Turner.

“I think this is a dangerous piece of legislation. You are putting Tennessee at risk of a lawsuit,” Akbari said. She argued decisions about abortion should be made in consultation with their doctor, their God and their family.

Tennessee is tied up already in abortion-related lawsuits and has stopped enforcing at least two laws passed in 2015.

Hill, however, said 26 other states have adopted the same language and not been challenged. He pointed out Slatery said he would defend the state if it is challenged on this measure.

Still, Turner asked House members if they would be considering the legislation if it were made up of 83 women and 16 men, instead of vice versa.

She spoke against the bill, saying decisions regarding abortion should “only be made by the woman involved in consultation with their physician and in consultation with their God. This is one of the most personal decisions a woman ever has to make.”

Rep. Sherry Jones, a Nashville Democrat, told House members Ob-Gyn physicians do not consider 20 weeks the gestational age for viability because it depends on each pregnancy and each woman.

“This legislation goes against all accepted medical standards of care. Twenty weeks is not a medical decision,” Jones said.

She argued the measure would be “devastating” for 11-year-old girls who become pregnant from rape or incest and are forced to carry the child to term.

“What you need to do is punish men who can’t keep their zippers up and keep their pants on,” Jones said.

Yet the House rejected amendments that would have changed the bill’s language to remove references to 20 weeks and to exempt cases of rape and incest.

Rep. John Ray Clemmons, a Nashville Democrat, contended placing a 20-week threshold into the state’s criminal code would create a dangerous precedent.

From a practical standpoint, experts say, few abortions are done in Tennessee past 20 weeks, and they mainly involve cases dealing with genetic problems or the health of the mother or fetus.

Yet opponents were far outnumbered in the House, which is controlled by a supermajority of Republicans.

Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, a Republican from rural Lancaster, spoke for the legislation as a “voice for the unborn.”

“It’s time we do something for these children and prevent them from being ripped from the womb,” Weaver said.

Though much of the debate focused on cases of rape and incest, Rep. Jeremy Faison said he found information showing the main reasons for abortion deal with convenience, such as interference with work, schools and the inability to support a child.

“That’s having birth control because you’re just wanting to have fun and not own up to the responsibility,” Faison said. He also pointed out the mortality rate for women who undergo abortions increases to 9 percent in the second trimester from 1 percent in the first trimester of pregnancy.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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