NASHVILLE — Two Tennessee Republican lawmakers are pressing a bill to allow any man believing he got a woman pregnant to obtain a court injunction blocking her from getting an abortion.
Sponsored by Sen. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, and Rep. Jerry Sexton, R-Bean Station, Senate Bill 494/House Bill 1079 would also allow a judge to impose civil or criminal contempt and punishment penalties on a woman for violating a court-imposed order and having an abortion.
The bill is already drawing fire. Tennessee Advocates for Planned Parenthood Executive Director Francie Hunt is calling the bill "unconstitutional, insulting, and dangerous" while also warning it would effectively give rapists legal standing to object to a victim seeking an abortion.
Under bill provisions, a court "shall issue the injunction" if a judge finds the male petitioner "has proven" he is the "biological father of the respondent's unborn child" and that there is a "reasonable probability" the woman will seek an abortion.
If the couple is unmarried, the man must have signed a voluntary acknowledgment of paternity which is filed with the court and cannot be rescinded. The bill goes on to state the measure "does not require the petitioner to provide DNA evidence to prove that the petitioner is the biological father of the respondent's unborn child."
Pody said in an interview that, while critics are upset, "I will tell you the unborn children of these mothers will be very happy with it."
The senator said he was spurred to bring the bill after hearing a man on a Nashville-area conservative talk radio show describing that a woman said to be bearing his unborn child "is going to go kill it, and I have absolutely no legal rights to do anything about it."
Pody said he expects opponents' argument will be to raise the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision in which the court struck down state laws banning abortion, holding that a woman's right to an abortion was implicit in the right to privacy under the Constitution's 14th Amendment. It effectively legalized abortions during the first trimester of pregnancy across the country.
But Pody, who is not an attorney, said in his view Roe was based on the state "challenging the individual mother's body and what her rights were. So it was always a state issue against an individual woman's rights. In this case, it is not a state that is taking up this legal cause, it is the father of that child. And that father believes, and I believe, the father has the right to say what's going to go on with the son or daughter."
Read a copy of Tennessee Senate Bill 494View
Asked why the bill doesn't require DNA evidence from the man claiming to be the father, Pody said, "It's going to be up to a court to decide if both the mother and the father are in agreement that if he's the father, then there doesn't have to be DNA. The courts can rule that yes, this is the father and all the evidence points to that, that's fine."
As for what happens if there is disagreement on the paternity issue, Pody said if the woman wants to challenge the court's ruling in favor of the man claiming paternity that it "would be up to their attorneys and the court to decide."
Hunt, with Planned Parenthood, said "a pregnant person must have the ultimate control over their body and their pregnancy. This is an unconstitutional, insulting and dangerous bill.
"Nobody should have the power to make health care decisions for someone else — not a judge, a partner, and certainly not a rapist regardless of paternity," Hunt said.
Senate Democratic Caucus Chair Raumesh Akbari, a Memphis attorney, said "we have a saying in our caucus that the majority party doesn't pass laws, it passes lawsuits. And I think that this is exactly what this type of legislation is."
It "couldn't be any more clear how unconstitutional this bill is," Akbari said. "And again, I think it will lead to a wave of taxpayer dollars, hard-earned taxpayer dollars, to defend this law. There is no other medical procedure in this world where a man has to consent to a woman receiving it. It is so archaic, backwards and just wrong. It's going to be incredibly divisive."
Akbari noted Republican Gov. Bill Lee and the state are already battling in federal courts over provisions in the anti-abortion law they passed in 2020 in the GOP-controlled General Assembly, where Republicans reign with supermajorities in both House and Senate.
Tennessee's 2020 law is among a number of measures passed in GOP-run states in an effort to force the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit Roe v. Wade.
Tennessee's law, which included input from Tennessee Right to Life, includes a provision banning abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected. That can be as early as six weeks. If that's struck down, Tennessee's law has a laddered approach implementing similar bans at different times during a pregnancy in hopes of finding restrictions that the Republican majority Supreme Court might find acceptable.
In November, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld another provision in the Tennessee law, ruling the state can ban abortions based on a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome, as well as prohibit the procedure if it's based on the race or gender of the fetus.
But earlier, a U.S. District Court judge barred Lee's effort to block abortions during a temporary ban on non-essential medical procedures in an executive order he signed to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.