NASHVILLE — Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam on Friday signed a bill into law that bans most abortions after 20 weeks if doctors determine the fetus to be viable outside the womb through required testing.
The Republican governor insisted in a signing statement that the new law passed by the GOP-controlled General Assembly isn't a "20-week abortion ban."
But critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union-Tennessee, insist it largely is just that, albeit with some exceptions.
Under the new law, which takes effect July 1, doctors could face felony charges for performing an abortion on a fetus deemed viable at 20 weeks unless the mother risks death or serious damage to a major bodily function.
A physician making determinations that a fetus could not live outside the womb or that carrying one to term could pose dangers to the mother would have to get a second, concurring opinion from a doctor not associated with the first doctor's practice.
ACLU-Tennessee had urged Haslam to veto the bill.
"This new law essentially bans abortions after 20 weeks except in medical emergencies, makes the definition of 'medical emergency' harder to meet, and places the burden on doctors to prove their innocence should the state try to prosecute them under this law," said Hedy Weinberg, ACLU-Tennessee's executive director.
In his signing statement, Haslam said The Tennessee Infants Protection Act "prohibits purposely performing post-viability abortions, except when a physician determines in his or her good faith medical judgment that either the unborn child is not viable or that the procedure is necessary to prevent serious risk to the mother.
"Rather than being a '20-week abortion ban,' as some have described it, the bill requires physicians to assess viability beginning at 20 weeks gestational age, absent a medical emergency," the governor added.
Haslam also noted Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery has said he would defend the law. Slatery had called the legislation "constitutionally suspect," but also said he would defend it in court in the event of a legal challenge.
Proponents said 20 other states have similar statutes and believe the Tennessee law would withstand a court challenge.
According to Tennessee Right to Life, which backed the legislation, the law establishes a presumption of viability at 24 weeks of pregnancy and requires a medical assessment to gauge viability of any unborn child when an abortion is sought beginning at 20 weeks of gestational age.
"Tennessee Right to Life thanks Gov. Haslam for his demonstrated commitment to doing everything possible constitutionally to defend and protect vulnerable unborn children," said Brian Harris, the organization's president.
Harris also said in his statement Haslam's administration "has been tireless in supporting common-sense measures which affirm the dignity of human life in our state."
"Pro-life Tennesseans are clearly very grateful to the governor," Harris said.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.