Tennessee state senators are expected to consider a proposal that would ban abortions from the time a woman learns she is pregnant.
It arises from the discussion of the so-called "fetal heartbeat bill" that has divided state lawmakers. The idea of the new legislation is to challenge abortion rights by taking an even more restrictive approach.
The key word in next week's debate will be "viability" — a concept that for decades has been at the center of abortion laws. According to the courts, that’s the capability of a fetus to live outside the mother’s womb, generally thought to happen around the 24th week.
The heartbeat bill (SB 1236/ HB 77) proposed earlier this year tried to block abortions once a heartbeat could be detected, usually around six weeks. It passed the House but ground to a halt in the Senate. Opposition came from abortion rights groups — and from some on the other side of the debate who oppose abortion.
"On what basis is the heartbeat relevant? Why is it relevant?" asks David Fowler, the president of the Family Action Council of Tennessee. "What's the point of that heartbeat reference in that bill?"
Fowler was one of the anti-abortion activists who was against the heartbeat bill. He's helped write the new legislation. (View the proposal as a PDF.)
He wants to attack the framework around abortion by changing the legal meaning of viability, so that it starts at conception. The result of his proposal is it would essentially ban all abortions once a pregnancy shows up on a test, an approach that he says it more consistent.
"The state is through this bill saying, 'We are making more secure the actual right that the child has to life,'" Fowler said.
Sen. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, confirmed to WPLN that he intends to push the legislation. He's been one of the co-sponsors of the heartbeat bill.
Already, the idea is stirring debate. Valorie Vojdik, a law professor at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, calls the proposal "radical." She says the U.S. Supreme Court has already made clear what viability means.
“My impression of this bill is it’s an extreme piece of legislation that virtually eliminates a woman’s right to choose to terminate a pregnancy,” Vojdik said.
"And consistently for 50 years [the Supreme Court] has held that a woman has the right to choose whether to continue a pregnancy as long as the fetus is not viable."
The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to discuss the new amendment at a two-day hearing Aug. 12-13 in the Cordell Hull Building's Senate hearing room. If members of the committee are satisfied, the proposal could be presented to other lawmakers at next year's legislative session.