Tennessee House passes controversial fetal heartbeat abortion bill

FILE - In this Jan. 22, 2016 file photo, pro-abortion rights signs are seen during the March for Life 2016, in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington. The Supreme Court will not allow North Dakota to enforce a law banning abortions when a fetal heartbeat is detected as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. The justices on Monday, Jan. 25, 2016, turned away the state’s appeal of lower court rulings that struck down the 2013 fetal heartbeat law as unconstitutional. The law never took effect and abortion rights supporters said it was the strictest anti-abortion measure in the country. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

NASHVILLE - The Tennessee House on Thursday passed a controversial bill to ban abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected, which could effectively bar the procedure as early as six weeks into pregnancy.

Representatives approved the bill, which would be one of the most restrictive in the nation and which opponents have vowed to challenge in court, on a largely party-line, 65-21 vote.

But first, proponents added an amendment to Republican Rep. Micah Van Huss' measure, to address concerns. It completely rewrote the bill to provide a belt-and-suspenders approach aimed at preventing the bill from gutting Tennessee's existing abortion restrictions if it is successfully challenged or enjoined.

The bill now goes to the Senate.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker, plans to proceed cautiously, telling reporters: "I certainly support that if the fetus has a normal heartbeat - it's viable. And I think most of the members of the Senate feel like that. But what I'd like to do is kind of wait to see what happened to some of the other laws that have been passed [in other states] and look at that."

McNally noted two similar laws have been struck down by federal appellate courts and "the U.S. Supreme Court has actually refused to hear" the states' appeals.

With the addition of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, proponents are pushing the legislation in a number of states, hoping he can provide the margin to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that made abortion legal.

Earlier Thursday, the Tennessee House debate on the bill was sometimes emotional from both sides.

"We are Tennesseans," Van Huss told the chamber as packed galleries of pro-abortion rights and anti-abortion spectators looked on. "If every other state murders their most innocent, we protect them. We are Tennesseans, the Volunteer State, even if it means sacrificing everything."

Rep. London Lamar, D-Memphis, said lawmakers should protect "a woman's constitutional right to make her own decisions about her abortion. Abortion restrictions seek control of a woman's reproductive freedom and oppress women in their communities. Access to abortion cannot be separated from human rights."

Noting the bill makes no exceptions in cases of rape or incest, Lamar said no woman "should be forced to bear a rapist's fantasy."

Freshman Rep. Esther Helton, R-East Ridge, a registered nurse, offered a highly personal take, telling colleagues the legislation "hits close to home to me," and then describing her own experience as a 17-year-old who became pregnant while a high school senior.

"I found out I was pregnant with my son, Lee, and I chose life," Helton said, noting she later attended school to become a nurse "to support my young family. Through many years of hard work and dedication, I now find myself privileged to be sitting in these chambers as a member."

Helton said while many women think their "lives are over when they become a mother at a young age, that could not be further from the truth. The gift of life is the most precious gift and we seem to have forgotten that."

But Van Huss' bill drew concerns from the Tennessee Right to Life, the state's oldest anti-abortion group due to worries that if successfully challenged, the bill would wreak havoc on existing provisions in state law such as a ban on abortions after 20 weeks.

Saying "strategy is important," House Speaker Pro Tem Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, who began his legislative career a quarter-century ago fighting for abortion restrictions now enshrined in Tennessee law, issued a warning about the bill.

"My concern with the bill as drafted is, No. 1, it will probably never save a life if we go by what's happening in the past," Dunn said. He later added: "If it's challenged in the courts, it's going to drive up a legal bill, so our money is going to be going to pro-abortion groups."

McNally raised similar concerns, noting that the state could be hit with a tab for legal fees hitting $250,000 or more that would benefit Planned Parenthood.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee has said it will challenge the legislation in court if it becomes law.

Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, called the bill "long overdue," but he nonetheless offered an amendment that rewrote Van Huss' original bill in an effort to ensure existing abortion restrictions are protected.

The amendment easily passed with 70 votes, although Van Huss insisted "I do believe it's constitutional" as originally drafted.

Republican leaders in the GOP-controlled House ended debate before Democrats could offer their own amendment that sought to exclude bill provisions from applying in cases of rape and incest.

Seven Republicans, including Dunn and Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, simply voted "present." Two Democrats voted in favor of the bill.

In addition to Helton, Reps. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, and Robin Smith, R-Hixson, voted "yes" on the bill. Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, voted "no."

Any number of Republican-led legislatures have passed or are considering similar fetal heartbeat bills as they seek to get the U.S. Supreme Court to review and overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that made abortion legal.

In January, an Iowa judge struck down that state's version of the fetal heartbeat bill. And the U.S Supreme Court previously declined to weigh in after lower courts blocked bills in Arkansas and North Dakota and Arkansas.

A similar bill is moving in Georgia's legislature and there are measures pending in Mississippi, Florida, Kentucky, Ohio and South Carolina.

Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Lee has said he would sign the bill should it reach his desk.

But ACLU-Tennessee Executive Director Hedy Weinberg warned that the House's "passage of this dangerous, unconstitutional bill has simply moved Tennessee one step closer to a lawsuit. Tennessee politicians should be less concerned about interfering with a woman's decisions regarding what is best for her health and her family and more concerned with providing her access to comprehensive health care."

She said should it pass and be signed into law "the ACLU of Tennessee and our client are prepared to file a lawsuit immediately."

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.