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Heartbeat abortion ban clears Health Committee, en route to House floor

Zach Vance • Feb 26, 2019 at 10:59 PM

A bill seeking to ban abortions from the point a fetal heartbeat is detected gained the House Health Committee’s approval Tuesday, and it now appears destined to pass the Tennessee House of Representatives in the coming weeks.

After intense debate, the House Health Committee voted 15-4 to approve House Bill 0077, sponsored by state Rep. Micah Van Huss, R-Jonesborough. All four Democrats on the committee cast the votes in opposition.

The proposal has gained at least 51 House cosponsors, a majority of the 99-member House.

For the past three years, Van Huss has led a pro-life crusade to diminish abortions in the state, and this year’s effort has far surpassed previous attempts to get similar bills passed.

Van Huss’ proposal, in its current form, would ban all abortions, even those conceived during a rape, from the point a pregnancy becomes viable, as opposed to when a fetus becomes viable.

The bill would define a “viable pregnancy” as one where a fetal heartbeat is detected, which can occur as early as 6.5 weeks. Current state law defines viability as when an unborn child is capable of surviving outside the womb, usually around 24 weeks.

If Van Huss’ bill becomes law, any physician who performs an abortion when the pregnancy is deemed viable could be charged with a Class C felony, carrying up to 15 years in jail and a $10,000 fine.

During the committee hearing, each of the four Democrats took turns expressing concerns, mainly criticizing how the bill might inflict additional trauma on pregnant rape victims who would be forced to carry the child of their rapist.

Just before the roll call vote began, Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, said he felt “sick and twisted” the committee was debating which lives have more value, whether it’s a baby conceived by rape or a baby conceived through consensual sex.

“All lives matter,” Hill said, as the audience erupted in applause. 

“If someone rapes someone, that person should be put under the jail forever ... Why does that same attitude then have to apply to an innocent person? In this case, the unborn child. The unborn child has not done anything wrong. The unborn child has not performed any acts of violence or malice towards their fellow man. That unborn child has the right to live, to survive and hopefully by God’s grace, to thrive.”

Hill also addressed the constitutionality question, arguing that Amendment 1 of the Tennessee Constitution allows the legislature to decide what restrictions can be placed on abortions.

At the start of the hearing, Rep. Larry Miller, D-Memphis, attempted to amend Van Huss’ bill to specify that state funds could not be used to defend a court challenge against the Heartbeat bill, unless those funds are appropriated for that exact purpose.

Van Huss said he believes we “owe it to our taxpayers to use every available resource to save babies’ lives,” before making a motion to table Miller’s amendment. That motion received a second, and the committee tabled the amendment.

Rep. Barbara Cooper, D-Memphis, was among those alarmed that Van Huss’ legislation did not include exemptions for women who are raped and then become pregnant.

“In my estimation — I’m not a doctor, but I am a woman — I would not want anybody to attack me, (then) rape me and I become pregnant. And I can’t make a choice about whether I want to carry (it). That’s a woman’s choice,” Cooper said.

Van Huss responded to Cooper saying he did believe in a woman’s right to live. The Heartbeat bill would permit an abortion only if the mother’s life is in danger, therefore deeming the pregnancy not viable.

“When you talk about being a woman and me not being a woman, I don’t need to be a woman to know evil when I see it,” Van Huss said. “Surely, you don’t want to murder babies.”

Because he believes its unconstitutional, Rep. Darren Jernigan, D-Old Hickory, said he could not cast his vote in favor of Van Huss’ proposal, though he did commend Van Huss for his passion on the subject.

“It bothers me that if my daughter was raped that the government would be telling her that she would have to carry that child to term,” Jernigan said. “I think that it will get struck down, and if that’s your goal to get it to the Supreme Court, maybe that’s what it is. But it does put a burden on our taxpayers on something that has been settled law for 45-plus years.”

Van Huss has repeatedly said his goal with the Heartbeat bill is not to get it challenged in court, but solely to “save babies’ lives.”

“As far as this being established law from 1973, I wasn’t around in 1973. I wasn’t in politics then. I aim to fix it,” he said.

The Calendar & Rules Committee will now take up the Heartbeat bill before scheduling a vote on the House floor. In the upper chamber, the Senate version of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Mark Pody, has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, but a hearing has not been scheduled.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee has indicated it will sue the state should the Heartbeat bill pass.

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