Tennessee Advances More Extreme Version Of Texas Abortion Ban

Tennessee's bill would ban abortion at any stage of pregnancy and deputize citizens to enforce it, allowing the law to evade court challenges.

Tennessee has advanced an even more restrictive version of the anti-abortion legislation crafted in Texas, which has successfully evaded legal challenges because of its unusual enforcement mechanism.

The legislation, which lawmakers on the state’s House Health Subcommittee advanced Tuesday, would completely ban abortion at any stage of pregnancy unless the mother’s life or safety is at risk. It now goes to the full House Health Committee for review.

“This bill is modeled directly after the legislation passed in Texas last year,” the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Rebecca Alexander (R), said at Tuesday’s committee hearing. Abortions in Texas, she noted, have dropped 60% since the law went into effect in September.

Alexander’s version of the bill is even more far-reaching than the law in Texas, which bans abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy. Other than that, the bills are nearly identical and were strategically crafted to avoid federal court challenges. Instead of tasking state officials with enforcing the ban, it deputizes public citizens to do so and incentivizes them with a $10,000 reward if they successfully sue someone for “aiding or abetting” a person seeking an abortion.

Abortion rights advocates gather outside the Tennessee Capitol in 2015.
Abortion rights advocates gather outside the Tennessee Capitol in 2015.
via Associated Press

Multiple legal challenges against the Texas ban have so far been unsuccessful.

Though Alexander’s bill specifies that “a person who impregnated a woman seeking an abortion through an act of rape, sexual assault, or incest” cannot file such a lawsuit, a Democratic committee member said there’s an obvious loophole with that.

“One in six women are victims of rape over their life,” state Rep. Bob Freeman (D) said to her at Tuesday’s hearing. “A minor who is raped becomes pregnant; they seek an abortion; the rapist’s mother, father, neighbor, girlfriend decides to sue, the doctor will be responsible for paying a $10,000 fine?”

Alexander said her assumption is that her legislation wouldn’t stop anyone from suing on behalf of a rapist.

CHOICES Memphis Center for Reproduction Health, an abortion provider in the state, released a statement Tuesday warning of the legislation’s consequences.

“If this bill is allowed to go into effect, people who need abortions will be forced to either travel out of state, not receive the health care that they need, or seek abortions in unsafe situations. This is a heartbreaking decision and one that sets Tennesseans back decades,” the group’s statement said.

“This ban is unconstitutional and will create dire circumstances in which individuals are asked to serve as ‘bounty hunters’ for financial reward to the detriment of people seeking care.”

Progress on the Tennessee bill comes a day after Idaho became the first state to pass its own version on the Texas law in hopes of evading court challenges. Idaho Gov. Brad Little (R) is expected to sign it into law soon and allow it to go into effect next month.

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