The move comes amid a national movement from anti-abortion legislators and activists who hope that President Donald Trump's appointments to the Supreme Court will increase their chances of undermining abortion rights.
Tennessee is among several states with pending bills to ban most abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected, about six weeks into pregnancy. The goal is to trigger a legal challenge to the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that established a nationwide right to abortion and possibly upend the ruling that established a woman's right to an abortion, as well as other rulings that have determined states cannot place undue burdens on a woman's constitutional right to abortion before a fetus is viable — typically between 24 and 28 weeks.
"This is an issue that has been on my heart my whole life," said Rep. Micah Van Huss, a Republican sponsoring the bill, during Tuesday's hearing. "I aim to save babies lives."
Republicans on the House Health Committee voted 15-4 to send the legislation to the House floor for a full vote, sparking heavy applause from supporters. Only Democratic members voted in opposition. While the bill still has to clear the House floor and the Senate, the bill is expected to win support from Republicans. Furthermore, first-term Gov. Bill Lee has promised his support if the bill reaches his desk.
Advocates on both sides of the issue packed the room to watch lawmakers spar over possible legal challenges and discuss hypothetical situations of women being forced to carry a baby to term even in cases of rape or incest.
By the meeting's close, many were breaking out in cheers and jeers in response to lawmakers' comments.
"I have three girls. I've raised them to be independent so no boy tells them what to do. Well, except for me," said Democratic Rep. Darren Jernigan. "But I've also said they're in control of their bodies and it bothers me the government would tell them what to do and it bothers me the bill is likely unconstitutional."
When asked if it would be acceptable for a 15-year-old student who was raped by her coach to be barred from having an abortion if she was past the six-week viability marker because a fetus's heartbeat was detected, Van Huss simply said 'yes.'
He responded similarly when asked if he agreed that the same ban should be in place in cases of incest.
"It is not up to me to determine someone else's life," Van Huss said.
Critics of the bill predict enactment of the fetal heartbeat measure would trigger an immediate legal challenge, warning that an Iowa judge struck down a similar law last month. In Mississippi, a federal judge declared banning abortion after 15 weeks was unconstitutional.
"On the one hand, sensibly speaking, this is unconstitutional and it's going to cost taxpayers dollars. While on the other hand, litigation would most surely help to uphold Roe v. Wade as the continued law of the land for women's health and privacy protections," said Francie Hunt, executive director of Tennessee Advocates for Planned Parenthood.
Even the state's top anti-abortion group, Tennessee Right to Life, has opposed the bill due to the surrounding legal concerns. In 2017, the group testified before lawmakers that its opposition stemmed from Supreme Court rulings banning criminalizing abortion prior to viability. Right to Life has been more subdued in airing concerns surrounding this year's bill, arguing Tennessee should let other states fight the legal battle.
"A woman should be able to make decisions about what is best for her health and her family in consultation with her doctor and her loved ones, without politicians interfering or trying to force her hand," said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee.
Added Weinberg in a statement: "If this bill passes, the ACLU of Tennessee stands ready to file a lawsuit immediately."
Associated Press writer Jonathan Mattise in Nashville contributed to this report.
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