Tennessee Lawmakers Move To Restrict Abortions Past 20 Weeks, Even As They Concede They're Rare | Nashville Public Radio

Tennessee Lawmakers Move To Restrict Abortions Past 20 Weeks, Even As They Concede They're Rare

May 1, 2017

Tennessee lawmakers are close to approving one of the toughest abortion laws in the nation — a measure that could open doctors to criminal prosecution if they perform abortions after 20 weeks.

That's even though both sides agree abortions that late in pregnancy almost never happen in Tennessee.

Less than 1 percent of all abortions are after 20 weeks. And when they do occur that late, they're usually for medical reasons, such as fetal abnormalities or to protect the health of the mother.

But state Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, says there's still a slim chance a fetus could survive after 20 weeks, so doctors and women should jump through more hoops.

"We want every child that has a chance at life to have to have the chance. We already, at will, destroy all babies before 20 weeks, without any chance at life."

The fear, though, is those hoops will be used to second guess doctors. They'd face three years in jail or more if they make the wrong call about whether an aborted fetus could've survived.

Senate Bill 1180 requires doctors to test for "viability" past 20 weeks and to refer women for a second opinion outside their practice. Abortions after 20 weeks would also have to be performed in a hospital with a neonatal unit, unless none exists within 30 miles.

The state's attorney general has described the measure as "constitutionally suspect" because it would impose new requirements at a gestational age when survival of the fetus is unlikely. But his office has said that it would defend the measure in court, if called to do so.

Francie Hunt with Tennessee Advocates for Planned Parenthood says it's strange that supporters of the bill would make many of the same arguments for the measure that abortion rights groups make against it. She says if abortions past 20 weeks are rare, lawmakers should not force them to go through unnecessary testing.

"That's cruel. Why would we do that? I think ultimately we need to leave it up to a woman, her family, faith and doctor, without any political interference."

Some opponents of the measure argue it might even lead to more abortions. If expectant mothers think the child growing in their womb is not likely to survive, they may elect to go ahead and have an abortion before 20 weeks, rather than wait it out and see if there's a chance of survival.

The Tennessee Senate approved the measure on a 27-3 vote on Monday afternoon. The Tennessee House is scheduled to take a final vote on it Wednesday.

It's likely to be litigated if it passes. Governor Bill Haslam has not said whether he'll sign it.