Gov. Haslam urges caution on enacting abortion laws

Gov. Bill Haslam speaks at the state Capitol in Nashville on Dec. 2, 2014.

NASHVILLE -- Gov. Bill Haslam says Tennessee should step carefully when it comes to enacting new abortion laws and not needlessly "go charging up hills" only to land in federal court.

His comments came in response to questions about a bill prefiled by Rep. Rick Womick, R-Rockvale, for the 109th General Assembly that begins meeting this month.

Womick's legislation would require that women seeking to terminate their pregnancies first undergo an ultrasound of the fetus or hear a physician's lecture.

A somewhat similar North Carolina law was ruled unconstitutional last month by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for violating doctors' First Amendment guarantees of free speech.

"I think anything we do, we should pay attention to what's been ruled legal or not in other states," Haslam, a Republican, said in a Times Free Press interview conducted before the appeals court ruling. "Let's not go charging up hills that other folks have charged up and have found were outside the law."

Under Womick's proposal, doctors or technicians would be required to place a monitor where the women can easily see "live, real-time fetal transabdominal ultrasound images" and ask the woman if she wants to view them.

If she refuses, the provider is required to provide her verbally with a detailed medical description of the fetus and provide sound of the fetus' heartbeat. In a 37-page ruling issued on Dec. 22, a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit struck down a similar doctor provision.

Haslam said he favors the approach announced by Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, and House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, as lawmakers move to pass new abortion laws allowed by Tennessee voters' approval in November of a state constitutional amendment. The amendment, which passed with 52.6 percent of the vote, removes any protections on the procedure from the state constitution.

But it has no effect on the U.S. Constitution or federal court rulings.

"I think [Ramsey and Harwell] have done a good nice job of saying their hope is that legislation would be focused on those things that the state was doing prior to 2000 when the [Tennessee] Supreme Court ruled," Haslam said.

The two speakers are focusing on repassing three laws struck down in that 2000 Tennessee Supreme Court decision, the same ruling that led to the 14-year struggle to pass the abortion amendment.

Those laws require informed consent or mandatory counseling, waiting periods and regulation of all abortion providers.

Efforts to reach Womick were unsuccessful. But The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville quoted him as saying the 4th District ruling won't stop him from trying to pass his House Bill 2.

"A patient that goes to the doctor in Tennessee, whether it's for an appendectomy or a heart transplant or an abortion, should be given the full information about the procedure," Womick told the newspaper. "It's not forced speech to tell somebody about the risk involved about the heart transplant? The courts can't have it both ways."

Womick pointed out that the 5th U.S. Court of Appeals upheld a similar Texas law and said the overall issue may be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

So far, there is no Senate sponsor for Womick's bill. And the state's pro-life movement isn't getting behind it. Leaders plan to press forward only on those issues that were argued for in their Yes on 1 campaign to render the 2000 Tennessee Supreme Court ruling moot.

"Well, from the perspective of Tennessee Right to Life, of course, and also the Yes on 1 campaign, we're committed to keeping our word -- that debate over Amendment 1 was largely about three policies," Tennessee Right to Life President Brian Harris told the Times Free Press.

Harris said the group is "grateful" for Womick's "pro-life determination," but "the priorities are informed consent, waiting periods and regulation of abortion facilities."

He said the 4th U.S. Circuit ruling is "all the more reason that we're going to focus on enacting statutes that have been proven to be upheld and constitutional by the federal courts."

In that ruling, Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III wrote that "while it is true that the words the state puts into the doctor's mouth are factual, that does not divorce the speech from its moral or ideological implications."

He wrote the court "need not go so far as to say that every required description of a typical fetus is in every context ideological. But this Display of Real-Time View Requirement explicitly promotes a pro-life message by demanding the provision of facts that all fall on one side of the abortion debate -- and does so shortly before the time of decision when the intended recipient is most vulnerable."

The opinion also notes that the law burdens North Carolina physicians by "deviations" in "traditions of informed consent."

"Requiring the physician to display an image and provide an explanation and medical description to a woman who has through ear and eye covering rendered herself temporarily deaf and blind" is "starkly compelled speech that impedes on the physician's First Amendment rights with no counterbalancing promotion of state interests. The woman does not receive the information, so it cannot inform her decision."

Instead, the court said, it "risks the infliction of psychological harm on the woman who chooses not to hear this information. She must endure the embarrassing spectacle of averting her eyes and covering her ears while her physician -- a person to whom she should be encouraged to listen -- recites information to her."

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550.