An extreme anti-abortion bill was introduced in the Tennessee legislature this session and passed a State House floor vote last week, with 65 legislators voting in support of it and only 21 against. Access to reproductive health care in Tennessee is already bleak. This legislative session's attacks on Tennesseans' reproductive health and access to abortion services continue to be a pressing issue. This bill is beyond another inflammatory attack. It's an attempt to ban abortion in Tennessee, plain and simple.
- Tennessee legislators debate "Heartbeat Bill"
Right now, 96 percent of counties in Tennessee don't have a clinic that provides abortion care, meaning 63 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 44 have to travel to seek care. Over the years, the Tennessee legislature has passed many abortion restrictions, making access to this care even more difficult and unattainable.
For example, Tennessee has a 48-hour waiting period for abortions, which requires women to make two appointments to receive the health care they need. That means they have to take off work twice in one week and pay for two appointments. It also means women who have to travel will have to travel twice, and in many cases, make hotel accommodations for at least one night. That causes an unnecessary financial and emotional burden on people who are already experiencing one of the most stressful experiences they will ever face.
As written, House Bill 77 (the "heartbeat bill") prohibits abortion as early as six weeks, before many people even know they're pregnant. This bill amounts to an absolute ban on abortion for most people in Tennessee. Even anti-abortion groups like the Catholic dioceses in Tennessee and Tennessee Right to Life have publicly opposed it.
This bill does not include an exception for rape or incest, and efforts to include an amendment to offer exceptions for rape victims failed. Anti-abortion legislators are prepared to cruelly force women to carry their rapist's child. While the bill was being heard in the House Public Health subcommittee, Representative Micah Van Huss, the primary sponsor, was asked about exceptions for rape and incest, to which he responded that the sins of the mother and father should not be taken out on the child.
What are the sins of the mother in the case of rape? This statement signifies anti-woman views, and it shows a lack of concern for the health, lives, and well-being of women.
Similar versions of this bill have been declared unconstitutional in other states, including North Dakota, Arkansas, and Arizona. The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the Constitution prohibits a state from enacting laws that ban abortion prior to the point in pregnancy when a fetus is viable. This was reaffirmed in 2016 in Whole Women's Health v. Hellerstedt. As recently as November 2018, a U.S. District Court struck down an even later, 15-week ban, determining it violated the constitutional guarantee of due process under the Fourteenth Amendment.
Recent polling shows that Tennesseans are against this bill. The allegedly "pro-family" sponsors would rather waste taxpayer money fighting for an unconstitutional law than expand access to better health care for all Tennesseans.
Access to all reproductive health care options is necessary for people in our community to have the freedom they need to make the best decisions for themselves and their families, and it is necessary for women's health. HB 77 fails to protect reproductive health care and, in fact, harms women and families. Such an extreme ban would have devastating consequences on the health and lives of Tennesseans. Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi and the ACLU of Tennessee have announced their intent to sue if this bill becomes law.
Abortion is part of the full spectrum of health care, and is a human right. Tennesseans deserve dignity and respect in all of their health care decisions. Our state cannot claim pro-family values while stripping away access to abortion and other reproductive health care.
Please contact the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and insist this bill not be allowed to progress any further.
Megan Rubenstein is a reproductive rights activist with Lady Parts Justice TN.