Tennessee Lawmakers Vote To Ban Abortion At 20 Weeks

The state's attorney general called the bill "constitutionally suspect."

The Tennessee House sent a bill to Gov. Bill Haslam’s (R) desk on Wednesday that would limit abortion at 20 weeks of pregnancy and imprison doctors who do not comply. 

The Tennessee Infant Protection Act would require doctors to test a fetus for viability at 20 weeks of gestation and would charge them with a felony, punishable by up to 15 years in prison, if they perform an abortion on a viable fetus after that point. The state Senate passed the bill earlier this week, as protesters dressed as handmaids from Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale chanted nearby.

Twenty states have enacted similar abortion bans, despite the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. That decision guarantees that a woman can have an abortion up until the fetus would be viable outside the womb, which doctors estimate to occur around 24 weeks of pregnancy.

Anti-abortion activists hope the 20-week ban will be a way to challenge and ultimately overturn Roe v. Wade. But as Tennessee lawmakers debated the controversial bill, Attorney General Herbert Slatery (R) expressed concerns that the legislation is “constitutionally suspect.”

Women’s health advocates have argued that 20-week bans don’t take into account the difficult reasons a woman may need to have an abortion late into her pregnancy, such as discovering a severe fetal anomaly during the 20-week ultrasound.

Former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton addressed that concern in a speech at Planned Parenthood’s anniversary gala on Tuesday night. 

“As a first lady, as a senator, as secretary of state, I have met so many women who have faced these real world choices,” Clinton said. “I’ve also met women right here in our country who, in the last weeks of their pregnancies, found they were carrying a baby who would not live and knowing that giving birth could put their own health or even their lives at risk.” 

“That’s a heartbreaking choice that no one ever wants to make,” she said. “Yet politicians want to get between these women, their families and their doctors.”

Haslam has not indicated whether he will sign the bill. “We will see,” he told reporters on Monday. “When it gets to us, we’ll have those conversations both with the attorney general and with our own review of the bill before we make our decision.”