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Gov. Bill Lee speaks at a roundtable discussion during a visit to Gestamp Inc. on Friday, Feb. 1, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn. This was Gov. Lee's first visit to Chattanoga as Governor of Tennessee. / Staff photo by Doug Strickland

The number of abortions in Tennessee in 2017 was 60% lower than it was in 1977, according to statistics compiled by the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights-focused think tank.

Gov. Bill Lee would like it to be even lower, and that's why he said Thursday that proposed legislation he supports would put the state "at the forefront of protecting life."

We hope he's right, but we also hope if such legislation passes, it doesn't become a lengthy and expensive court albatross around the state's neck.

Lee's proposal came a day before President Donald Trump became the first U.S. chief executive to speak to the annual March for Life rally, which is held on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on the anniversary of the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision enshrining a woman's right to an abortion.

"Every child is a precious and sacred gift from God," he told the crowd, adding that "unborn children have never had a stronger defender in the White House."

The drop in the number of abortions not only in Tennessee but across the country has been remarkable in that it has occurred as pro-life protests in front of abortion clinics declined, as the issue disappeared from prominence in daily news sources, and as political and financial support for abortion rights grew louder and stronger.

We've said before that we believe the reasons abortions declined are the wider use of birth control and the increased understanding about the beginning of life and viability of a child.

Following the Roe decision, pro-life protests barely moved the needle, and violence by a few misguided individuals only hurt the movement.

In the 47 years since the high court case, though, improved medical technology has been a saving grace. And it is that technology that Lee hopes will prevent more abortions.

The legislation, among other things, would require women to have an ultrasound examination. If that examination detects a fetal heartbeat, an abortion would not be possible. Fetal heartbeats may be heard as early as six weeks, but a steady heartbeat may not be detected until 12 weeks.

The bill, for which details have not been finalized, also would ban abortions at eight weeks, 10 weeks and 12 weeks. The reasoning behind that — called a severability cause — is that if the fetal heartbeat provision were found unconstitutional, the weekly bans — in order of their constitutionality — would be in place. If they all were ruled out, existing law would remain.

The legislation also bans abortion in cases where a physician is "aware the action is motivated by sex, race or a health or disability diagnosis of the child."

Viability of a fetus in the 47 years since Roe was decided has changed, becoming earlier and earlier in a woman's pregnancy. In 1973, abortion supporters argued life did not begin until birth. The thought by pro-life supporters today is that the earlier women hear a fetal heartbeat or understand how soon a child can live outside the womb, the less often they will choose an abortion.

Ultimately, pro-life supporters would like the Supreme Court to overturn its abortion decision, and laws similar to the one Lee is proposing have been passed by several states in the hope they might reach the high court, where a majority of justices have been appointed by Republican presidents.

The Tennessee House passed a different heartbeat bill in 2019, but the Senate did not concur because its members thought a subsequent court decision in a lawsuit filed over the bill might hurt existing law and cause the state to have to pay the legal expenses of a plaintiff.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and Senate Judiciary Chairman Mike Bell, R-Riceville, seem convinced the new legislation will hold up in court.

The cost to the state of lengthy court challenges has always made us reticent about being — as Lee said — "on the forefront of protecting life." Yes, some state has to challenge existing law, but it seems enough states already have done so that Tennessee could wait to see whether the other laws hold up.

When the proposed legislation was revealed Thursday, Democrats gave it their expected thumbs-down, attempting to demonize it (part of an "extreme, divisive political agenda"), change the subject (we need "to solve real issues that we have here") or by confusing the issue (attempting to conflate losing a child by miscarriage to the right to an abortion).

But even as abortions decline, and as mothers can earlier see and hear their child's spark of life for themselves, Lee said he just wants "to protect the most vulnerable members of our community."

Trump, similarly, told the March for Life crowd "every life brings love into this world," and we should want every human life to "fulfill their God-given potential."

"As the Bible tells us," he said, "each person is wonderfully made."

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