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VOL. 41 | NO. 9 | Friday, March 03, 2017

Heartbeat bill hits hurdle

By Sam Stockard

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NASHVILLE – State Rep. Micah Van Huss’ “heartbeat bill” ran into an unlikely opponent this week: Tennessee Right to Life.

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

It was delayed for a week in a split vote after Tennessee Right to Life President Brian Harris told the committee it could set back the state’s legal efforts after passing Amendment 1 in 2014.

“I think it’s an unfortunate bill,” Harris says.

Van Huss persists, though, and claims he has the five votes needed to pass the bill in the subcommittee.

“I’m trying to save lives,” Van Huss, a Jonesborough Republican, says during an exchange with House Civil Justice Subcommittee members Wednesday.

He points out more than 60 million abortions have been performed since 1973 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade. In addition, he says his “heartbeat bill” would have saved 4,220 babies had been in effect since last year.

“If the lack of a heartbeat determines when someone is dead, then shouldn’t the presence of a heartbeat determine when they’re alive?” Van Huss asks the panel.

Despite compelling testimony from Lacey Buchanan whose young son was not expected to survive while in the womb yet is thriving despite a sight disability, Tennessee Right to Life President Harris says the bill could hurt pro-life movement from a legal standpoint.

Courts have ruled that no abortion prior to viability of the fetus can be criminalized, Harris says, 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 says, including Amendment 1, which voters passed in 2014 giving the Legislature more authority to restrict and regulate abortions. Subsequently, the Legislature adopted measures requiring a waiting period and state regulation of abortion clinics, among other restrictions.

Harris points out all of those are being challenged in court, and he contends this type of law would do nothing but allow “hostile” judges to “reaffirm” Roe v. Wade at the expense of Tennessee and the strides Tennessee Right to Life and pro-life forces have made in the last few years.

If the bill were amended to say no fetus could be aborted once it reaches viability – the ability to live outside the mother – it might survive in the court system, Harris says.

Subcommittee members pressed Harris on his personal views of the matter, and he finally acknowledged he wants to protect the child as well as the mother and family. But ultimately his argument was based on the legal landscape.

“Running legislation that is found to be unconstitutional based on Supreme Court decisions is not a good use of our resources,” Harris says.

Van Huss sparred with Democratic Rep. John Ray Clemmons, a pro-choice legislator from Nashville, over medical provisions and definitions in the legislation as well as the cost of ultrasounds for women who might not be able to afford them.

Ultimately, the subcommittee voted 5-4 to postpone consideration of Van Huss’ bill for one week so he could file an amendment.

But before the final vote, committee members pointed out it was a surreal moment in the General Assembly to see Clemmons siding with Tennessee Right to Life. Van Huss, likewise, said he felt it was odd to find himself more “pro-life” than Tennessee Right to Life.

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