Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announced Thursday that he will submit a “comprehensive pro-life” bill this legislative session that will put the state “at the forefront of protecting life.”
“I believe we have a special responsibility to protect the most vulnerable members of our community,” Lee said. “And no one is more vulnerable than the unborn.”
Last year’s "heartbeat bill" passed in the House but failed in the Senate. This bill has additional restrictive provisions. Lee said these provisions “make it a stronger bill” and are a part of a legal strategy. The provisions include prohibiting abortion motivated by the sex, race, or diagnosis of a disability, as well as requiring women to view their ultrasound.
“We know that when a mother views her unborn child and hears a heartbeat, hearts and minds are changed,” Lee said of the ultrasound provision.
Following the model of a Missouri law, the bill will also specify that if the heartbeat provision is struck down in court, the abortion ban would kick in at 8, 10, or 12 weeks — the point at which bans have been upheld in court.
“My passion for developing this legislation stems from my commitment to defending the intrinsic dignity of all people,” Lee said.
Rep. William Lambert (R-Portland) is one of the lawmakers pushing the bill.
“It is reprehensible to murder a human being, period, whether that child is in the womb or it’s already drawn his or her first breath,” Lambert said. “Governor, leaders, I wish we had a bigger stage because I think this shows just how powerful this legislation is.”
Lambert said legislators will work out the details of the bill over the next few months, figuring out “exactly how we can accomplish the mission of saving millions of lives.”
Democratic legislators quickly voiced opposition to the governor’s announcement in a press conference Thursday.
Sen. Jeff Yarbro of Nashville called the governor’s proposal “extreme” and “divisive.”
“This isn’t even legislation at all,” Yabro said. “It’s a litigation strategy. We have real problems to solve in this state. If you went to hearings in this building, just this week we talked about the fact that we provide fewer protections for pregnant women than any other state.”
Sen. Katrina Robinson, who is from Memphis, also spoke at the press conference, saying that Thursday’s announcement is a “stage prop” and “divisive political pawn.”
“It is not a political issue,” Robinson said. “It’s a human rights issue. It’s a women’s rights issue. It’s an issue of families. It’s an issue of being human. I find it very disturbing that this is our first run of political agenda this session.”
Robinson also opposed referring to the legislation as “comprehensive” and “pro-life.”
“I don’t understand that,” she said. “How is it comprehensively pro-life if we don’t provide health care, don’t provide childcare, don’t fund education? That’s pro-life. This is not pro-life legislation.”
Robinson said with Tennessee’s high infant-mortality rate and high number of unintended and teen pregnancies, the governor should be focused on preventative care, contraception access, and policies that will provide youth with sexual education to reduce unintended pregnancies.
Tennessee Advocates for Planned Parenthood also responded to the governor’s announcement in an open letter to the governor and legislators.
“We, the undersigned, are called by our lived experience as parents, caregivers, and family members to stand up for the dignity and autonomy of pregnant people,” the letter reads in part. “We have lived through typical and complicated pregnancies, and we are raising children we deeply love. We oppose all attempts to criminalize and restrict abortion access.”
The letter continues saying that the proposed legislation will not eliminate abortions, “but will force pregnant people to turn to unregulated and often dangerous attempts to end their pregnancies.”
The letter also notes that the legislation would force women to become parents, including those who are survivors of rape or incest.
“Rather than force people to have babies, our state lawmakers should focus on broadly popular ideas to support new families, such as paid leave, access to affordable care, and reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers,” the letter continued.
The letter calls for lawmakers to “recognize that abortion access is a critical issue for current and future families. We trust people who are pregnant to make thoughtful, moral decisions and urge our state leaders to do the same.”
A study done by Vanderbilt University in the fall found that 54 percent of respondents believe Roe v. Wade should be upheld. The poll surveyed 1,000 registered voters in Tennessee. Of the 54 percent that believe the Supreme Court decision should be upheld, 85 percent were Democrats and 32 percent were Republican.
Last year, a poll done by NPR/PBS News/Marist Poll showed that 77 percent of Americans think the Supreme Court should uphold Roe. v. Wade, while 13 percent want to see it overturned.