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VOL. 42 | NO. 3 | Friday, January 19, 2018

Anti-abortion 'heartbeat bill' revived despite like-minded opposition

By Sam Stockard

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An East Tennessee lawmaker is trying breathe life into his “heartbeat bill” this session of the General Assembly despite an odd mix of opposition from pro-life forces and Democrats.

State Rep. Micah Van Huss delayed the measure in a House committee this week until a Senate sponsor can be placed on it, but he confirmed he will present the bill as soon as the clerk’s office prepares it.

New Sen. Mark Pody, a Lebanon Republican, is set to carry the bill in the Senate after he won a recent special election to replace the bill’s previous sponsor, Mae Beavers, a Republican who resigned to run for governor.

Van Huss, a Jonesborough Republican, postponed the bill last year, but planned to bring it back saying it can withstand constitutional muster based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to ban partial-birth abortions in 2007 after multiple efforts to stop the procedure failed. A House Health Subcommittee voted 5-4 last year to “roll” the measure rather than vote it up or down, effectively keeping it alive for another push.

The legislation would prohibit abortions once a heartbeat is detected by ultrasound in a fetus, usually at six to eight weeks, except in cases when the mother’s life is in jeopardy.

“Forty-two times in the court system the partial-birth abortion ban failed. The 43rd time it passed, so the question for people voting on this: Is this a fight worth fighting. For me it is,” Van Huss says.

Tennessee Right to Life President Brian Harris testified against the bill in committee in 2017 and continues to oppose it. House Republican Majority Leader Glen Casada also is counseling Van Huss to drop the matter.

“The pro-life community says it’s not good for the cause,” Casada says, adding several other pro-life legislators believe it causes problems for other abortion-related measures.

Tennessee Right to Life wants to support legislation that stands a stronger chance of holding up in court, and until it can find five pro-life votes on the U.S. Supreme Court, it remains leery of Van Huss’ bill, according to Harris.

“With all due respect to the sponsor, we think he has the cart before the horse,” Harris says.

Courts have ruled that no abortion prior to viability of the fetus can be criminalized, according to Harris, and the U.S. Supreme Court has already struck down the efforts of two states to enact a similar “heartbeat” law. The court refused to hear a third state case.

Such a state law would be challenged at the federal level, affecting other Tennessee measures to restrict abortions, Harris has said, including Amendment 1, which voters passed in 2014 giving the Legislature more authority to restrict and regulate abortions. The Legislature also adopted laws requiring a waiting period and state regulation of abortion clinics, among other restrictions.

“This will not save a single child’s life, it will not help a single woman because at the present time it’s not constitutional,” Harris says.

The group hopes vacancies expected to open soon on the U.S. Supreme Court will lead to the appointment of pro-life judges who can give a majority opinion to change abortion law, Harris adds.

But repeatedly proposing legislation such as the “heartbeat bill” can become “demoralizing to pro-life citizens who want to be on a winning team,” Harris said.

Democratic state Rep. Sherry Jones, a critic of Van Huss’ legislation, said she wishes he would move on to other issues.

“How many times can you bring this stuff up and have it killed before you realize that the people in this state believe that women are smart enough to make their own decisions and just let it be?” said Jones, of Nashville. “If he doesn’t want to have an abortion he doesn’t have to have one. If his wife doesn’t want one she doesn’t have to. But you can’t tell everybody what they can and can’t do with their bodies. And you can’t make their decisions for them. Leave it alone.”

Amendment 1 decision spurs anti-abortion move

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld Amendment 1, a constitutional measure passed by voters in 2014 removing the right to an abortion from the Tennessee Constitution. It also gave legislators authority to enact stricter abortion laws.

A group of Tennesseans, including a former chair of Planned Parenthood, challenged Tennessee’s voting method, which requires a majority plus one out of the number of people voting in the governor’s race. The group contended proponents of the abortion measure urged people to avoid voting in the governor’s race and to vote on Amendment 1 in order to make their ballot carry more weight.

“Clearly that was a historic victory, not only for pro-life forces in the state but for people across the nation,” Harris says.

The same day the appeals court outcome was announced, state Rep. Jimmy Matlock, a Lenoir City Republican running for Congress, said he would introduce legislation outlawing state funding for Planned Parenthood.

“A false narrative exists in Tennessee that Planned Parenthood doesn’t receive Tennessee taxpayer dollars,” Matlock says in a statement. “Media and professional politicians from both sides of the aisle have reinforced this false narrative time and time again to protect their funding. It is beyond time for Tennessee leaders to show integrity and honesty by putting this to bed once and for all.”

A 2011 move by lawmakers to divert money through the Tennessee Department of Health to Planned Parenthood was “misleading and dishonest,” Matlock said.

A 2015 investigation led by state Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, into Planned Parenthood funding found the organization received $108,100 in taxpayer funds from 2011 to 2015. Most of it came from the federal government and another $11,000 came from the state.

A statement from Matlock says Planned Parenthood supporters point to the federal Hyde Amendment and state laws banning it from using tax dollars for pay for abortions. Matlock calls those “feel-good” measures allowing legislators a “cop-out.”

“Planned Parenthood still gets taxpayer money and they’re using it to pay the electric bills or whatever else, and that then allows them greater profit on the murder of innocent children,” Matlock says. “In Tennessee, it ends this year.”

Democrats said the pending legislation targets women’s health care.

“This is a continuation of an attack on women over the last couple of sessions where we’re seeing women’s rights erode more and more,” said state Rep. Brenda Gilmore, a Nashville Democrat running for a state Senate seat. “The aim of the legislation being filed is to close down Planned Parenthood in Tennessee by ending reimbursements to health-care providers under Medicaid.”

Already 39 percent of Tennessee women fall through an insurance gap between TennCare and the Affordable Care Act, and such a measure would be more devastating for access to quality health care, Gilmore said.

Some 18,000 women who use Planned Parenthood would lose access to testing for sexually transmitted diseases, cancer screening and other preventive health methods, she said.

“If we’re serious about reducing abortion, then our colleagues across the aisle should be willing to join with us to make family planning more available,” Gilmore says. “This legislation was announced with no plans to make up for the essential health-care services for women.”

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

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