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VOL. 43 | NO. 4 | Friday, January 25, 2019

Tennessee gov, top GOP lawmakers back heartbeat abortion ban

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NASHVILLE (AP) — Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Lee and the top two GOP state lawmakers say they support a push to ban abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected, as early as six weeks into a woman's pregnancy.

Tennessee is among several states considering heartbeat bills amid hopes from some abortion opponents nationwide that a conservative U.S. Supreme Court majority will review the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling and uphold stricter abortion prohibitions.

And with backing from the three top officials, Tennessee's push is likely to gain traction in the ongoing state legislative session.

The fetal heartbeat bill is at odds with the legal standard set by the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade ruling, which prohibits states from banning abortions before viability. Additionally, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery in 2017 deemed a heartbeat bill "constitutionally suspect."

Generally speaking, the new governor told reporters Wednesday he will look at individual bills and decide if he favors them, and "the courts will have to decide for themselves whether it's constitutional or not."

"I would support any bill that reduces the number of abortions in the state," said Lee, who campaigned heavily on his Christian faith.

Lee echoed support from House Speaker Glen Casada and Senate Speaker Randy McNally, who told The Associated Press a day earlier that they would favor the restriction.

"I think it's a fight worth having in front of the Supreme Court. I really do," said Casada.

In Ohio, Republican ex-Gov. John Kasich twice vetoed similar legislation. But that state's new Republican Gov. Mike DeWine has pledged to sign it. Other states are expected to consider heartbeat bills.

Last week, a state judge struck down Iowa's heartbeat law. Lee said he would look at that case. Federal circuit courts have struck down similar laws in Arkansas and North Dakota.

"Rather than focusing on unconstitutional legislation that would restrict access to safe and legal abortions, Tennessee's legislators should focus on increasing health care access and laws that support comprehensive sexuality education," said Ashley Coffield, Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi president and CEO.

Last year, a federal appellate court dismissed a lawsuit questioning the vote count for a state constitutional amendment against abortion passed by voters in 2014. The amendment says nothing in the state constitution "secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion." The amendment also empowers state lawmakers to "enact, amend, or repeal statutes regarding abortion."

Since the 2014 change, the Legislature has passed several abortion restrictions.

Last year, lawmakers voted to seek federal approval to ban TennCare payments for non-abortion services to any provider of more than 50 abortions in the prior year.

In 2015, lawmakers passed a restriction requiring abortion clinics to meet hospital-level surgical standards. That law was permanently halted in the spring of 2017 because of a federal lawsuit.

In the same lawsuit, the state is still defending a 2015 restriction that requires counseling and a 48-hour waiting period for women seeking abortions.

And in 2017, Tennessee banned abortions after 20 weeks on fetuses that are determined to be viable.

Last year, Republican Rep. Micah Van Huss watered down his fetal heartbeat bill to pass a new law requiring if an ultrasound is performed before an abortion, the woman must be given the opportunity to learn the results. Van Huss is carrying the heartbeat bill again this session, which is expected to last several months.

McNally, the Senate speaker, predicted that by the time Tennessee's heartbeat bill would be passed and challenged, there probably would be some decision on other states' cases.

"I think (Tennessee) will probably be a leader in protecting the life of the unborn," McNally said. "I think we'll also, at the same time, not try to do everything at once, but sort of move ahead with some caution."

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Kimberlee Kruesi in Nashville, Tennessee contributed to this report.

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