The proposed "Tennessee Infants Protection Act" (TIPA) cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee with a 7-2 vote, and is expected to head to the Senate floor as early as next week.
If passed, the measure won't prohibit abortion before 20 weeks, but it will introduce a swath of legal entanglements for women who need an abortion after 20 weeks, and for the physicians who provide them.
Among the numerous restrictions introduced in the measure, one stands out as particularly troublesome to Francine Hunt, the executive director of Tennessee Advocates for Planned Parenthood.
If passed, women seeking an abortion after 20 weeks — whether it's because their fetus is not viable or carrying the fetus to term poses a threat to their lives — must have two physicians certify that the abortion is medically necessary under state law.
"To put this in context, for a woman who is pregnant at 20 weeks, by that point I would say most, if not all women want to carry their pregnancy to term," said Hunt.
PP's own data says that 99 percent of abortions are performed before 21 weeks.
Hunt adds, "It's usually after that point that they've gotten bad news from their doctor. They're usually in a state of grief, and they have a tough decision to make — whether that's to risk carrying the child to term, risk delivering a still born, or making the decision to terminate the pregnancy because they think it will spare their infant from a life of pain, or save the mothers."
If TIPA becomes law, expecting mothers who are faced with such a decision will have to hear that their fetus is unviable — twice, from two separate doctors who must not even be in the same practice.
"This bill doesn't really even do anything, besides create more hardships for the patient who's already at a delicate stage, and their doctor," said Hunt. "There's a cruel overtone to this bill"
Attempts to criminalize, ban, or partially ban abortions are almost a yearly feature in Tennessee's legislature, and are routinely fought by Planned Parenthood and other reproductive rights advocates. This year, the TIPA measure has actually drawn criticism from Tennessee's own attorney general, Herbert Slattery III, who called the measure "constitutionally infirm" and "suspect" in an opinion released early April.
Just last week, the state was forced to retract two abortion restrictions — one that requires physicians performing the abortions to have hospital admitting privileges, and one that requires a clinic that performs 50 or more abortions a year to meet the same standards as ambulatory surgery centers — after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down similar restrictions in Texas.
"Those restrictions were struck down because they were unconstitutional," said Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region's CEO, Ashley Coffield. "Yet, some legislators want to proceed with another unconstitutional measure."
Coffield calls TIPA, "reckless", but adds that the bill has "galvanized people across Tennessee to speak up about reproductive rights."