NASHVILLE — A bill aimed at banning most abortions after 20 weeks is headed to Republican Gov. Bill Haslam after the state House on Wednesday took final action on the controversial measure.
It bars abortions after 20 weeks if a physician determines the fetus is viable through testing.
Representatives in the GOP-run House approved it on a 68-18 vote. It would make it a crime for a doctor who performs an abortion on a viable fetus after the legal time limit with criminal penalties of up to 15 years in prison upon conviction.
It includes exceptions if the mother risks death or serious harm to a major bodily function. The House voted down along mostly partisan lines a Democratic amendment to make exceptions in pregnancies as a result of rape and incest.
Asked earlier this week if he would sign the legislation into law, Haslam, a Republican, was noncommittal with reporters saying, "We will see."
Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery previously said in a legal opinion the legislation was "constitutionally suspect."
But Slatery also suggested several changes to the bill, including one later adopted by the Senate, and the attorney general also noted he was prepared to defend the would-be law if a court challenge materializes.
Pointing to Slatery's willingness to defend the law, Haslam said, "When it gets to us we will have those conversations both with the attorney general and with our own review of the bill before we make that decision."
Senators passed the legislation Monday. Twenty other states have similar laws, proponents say.
"Not one of these 20 states have been challenged with regard to post-viability statutes," said Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, the House sponsor.
Hill said the "purpose of the bill is to prevent the deliberate killing of a large group of people."
But Democratic critics said the bill goes too far, with Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, warning, "you can't put on a finite date" on viability at 20 weeks because gestation periods can vary for different women and their fetuses.
During an earlier House committee hearing, one woman described how after she and her husband decided to have a second child, her fetus only developed life-threatening issues after the 20-week timeline envisioned in the bill.
Her voice breaking, the woman said her doctor told her the fetus would either die within her womb or shortly after birth.
Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville, charged that "viability is not 20 weeks and it depends on each pregnancy and each woman." The legislation "goes against all accepted medical standards of care," she added.
"This bill did not come from the medical community," Jones told the chambers. "So here you have a room full of legislators making medical decisions and medical laws and there's what, two medical doctors in this House?"
The two doctors, both Republicans, supported the bill. Hill argued the bill provides adequate protections for instances in which the mother's life is in danger and where the fetus could not survive leaving the womb.
Jones, meanwhile, warned that girls as young as 11 years old who have been raped could be forced to have babies.
"What you need to do is punish men who can't keep their zippers up and keep their pants on," Jones scoffed.
The Tennessee chapter of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has raised concerns that doctors could face criminal charges in exercising their best informed medical judgment. But the Tennessee Medical Association did not take a position on the bill.
In his legal opinion, Slatery said that without proving a doctor has "guilty knowledge" or been reckless, "such statutes impermissibly subject a physician to criminal liability even though he was acting in good faith in determining whether a medical emergency or medical necessity exists."
Earlier this week, Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, said the bill now allows physicians to mount a defense on the viability question based on their subjective judgment stemming from their experience.
Hensley, a physician, said he was removing a secondary provision also requiring objective evidence which he said had drawn concerns from Slatery about having two standards.
Women protesters have objected to the bill, coming to the state Capitol dressed in long red capes and white caps.
"We are NOT Tennessee Handmaids," said one woman's sign.
They said it's a reference to "The Handmaid's Tale," a dystopian novel about a fundamentalist totalitarian theocracy in New England.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.