NASHVILLE, Tennessee – In front of a standing room only committee room, the House Health Committee passed the Heartbeat Bill by an overwhelming majority of 15 for and 4 against, straight along party lines.
The bill, sponsored in the Tennessee House by Representative Micah Van Huss (R-Van Huss) as HB 0077, establishes the viability of a pregnancy when a fetal heartbeat is detected and bans an abortion once the fetal heartbeat is detected.
The bill passed through the House Health Subcommittee last week, moving on to the full House Health Committee Tuesday.
The hearing of Van Huss’s HB 0077 in the House Health Committee coincided with a previously scheduled Planned Parenthood Day on the Hill, complete with a bus from Knoxville.
Pro-life grassroots advocates showed up as well, so that the room appeared to be about equally split, based on outward displays, between those representing two sides of the issue.
Despite 14 of the 19 House Health Committee members having signed on to the bill as co-sponsors prior to the meeting, making it fairly obvious the bill would pass, discussion on the bill lasted nearly three-quarters of an hour before a roll call vote was eventually taken.
Discussions went back and forth between the committee members and the bill sponsor, with most of the dialogue coming from the committee members, and abbreviated, direct responses coming from Representative Van Huss mainly focused on saving the lives of babies.
Stark contrasts could be observed in the dialogue of the committee members as well as the audible and visual responses of the audience, based on support for or opposition to the Heartbeat bill.
The debate initiated with an amendment offered by Representative Larry Miller (D-Memphis), who asked to be recorded as present and not voting during the previous week’s subcommittee meeting. Miller said his amendment states that state funds shall not be utilized to defend this act in judicial proceedings unless the funds are specifically appropriated for such purpose in a general appropriation act.
Bill sponsor Van Huss responded by saying, “I think that we owe it to our taxpayers to use every available resource to save babies’ lives.” Van Huss then respectfully made a motion to table the amendment.
When a motion to table has been made, it cuts off all debate allowing only the sponsor of the amendment to speak to it.
Representative Miller argued the point that taxpayer dollars are being already being used and in lawsuits in three states that were struck down, $1 million had been spent. Miller went on to say he had received hundreds of emails from across the state, including Knoxville, middle Tennessee and west Tennessee.
Miller then read from a constituent’s email, “I urge you to oppose the unconstitutional, unsafe legislation that would ban abortions in Tennessee. House Bill 77 and House Bill 1029 are extreme measures that would make almost all abortions illegal in Tennessee. These bills simply go too far in inserting government into our personal and private lives. House Bill 77 will prevent most women from getting abortions as early as six weeks into a pregnancy before many women even know they are pregnant.”
House Health Committee Chairman Bryan Terry (R-Murfreesboro), as he had a couple times prior, reminded Representative Miller to stay on the amendment.
Miller went on reading, “These bills are so clearly unconstitutional that it would open the door to litigation, legal wrangling, costing taxpayers more of their hard-earned money. Passing this bill would be a waste of taxpayers’ resources on divisive unconstitutional bill.”
Miller then requested the Chairman and members of the committee support the amendment.
The voice vote to table the amendment was deemed that “the ayes have it,” by Chairman Terry.
Representative Barbara Cooper (D-Memphis) started with a seemingly innocuous question, asking the bill sponsor to give a brief explanation as to what the bill does.
Van Huss explained the bill would ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected and would do so by defining what a viable pregnancy is. “We’re attempting to save babies’ lives by saying that it’s a Class C felony to commit an abortion after viability.”
An audible gasp-like response could be heard from the Planned Parenthood supporters.
Representative Cooper went on to ask that if Van Huss was saying that in the case of rape or incest, abortion would be banned.
Van Huss responded in the affirmative, “I am,” and continued, “I do not think, Mrs. Cooper, that you would think that killing babies is the right thing to do.”
Representative Cooper seemed incredulous as she laid out an example of a lady who was raped not having any choice about who or what the baby is, like the rapist did by choosing who they attacked. She went further by adding that the baby could have a disease and a health problem is involved with that and the lady’s mental health capacity is involved.
If it were her who was attacked, raped, and a pregnancy resulted, Representative Cooper said she would want to have that choice, essentially asking the sponsor if his bill would take away that choice.
Representative Van Huss thanked Representative Cooper for her questions and responded, “First of all, on a lady’s choice, I believe in a woman’s right to live.” The response was received with laughter from the mostly female Planned Parenthood supporters, prompting Chairman Terry to gavel and call for order.
“Second of all,” Van Huss continued, “Being a woman, and not being a woman, I don’t need to be a woman to know evil when I see it,” which was again received with an audible reaction from the Planned Parenthood crowd.
When asked to repeat his statement by Representative Cooper, Van Huss said, “Again, Ma’am, I do not have to be a woman to know evil when I see it. Surely, you do not want to murder babies,” which garnered more reaction from the crowd.
Representative Cooper talked about the potential health problems, hospital bills, pills and great expense that may have to paid by the state, creating something that “we have to spend more government money on for something that is illegal, as far as I’m concerned.”
She expressed that she wished she had more time to talk about how it affects women, recognizing Van Huss isn’t trying to hurt mothers. Representative Cooper added, “We want healthy children to come,” but then moving away from the health of mother to the baby, “We don’t even know whether the child is going to be healthy or anything.”
Representative Cooper concluded by saying that she wished Representative Van Huss would reconsider, “because this is too harsh on any mother.”
Representative Darren Jernigan (D-Nashville) then taking over, recognized Van Huss’s passion for the issue and said that Van Huss probably feels the way about “Roe” as Jernigan does about “Heller.” Jernigan went on to further explain his point,
“I know that if I were to present a bill that banned handguns in the state, you’d probably be the first one to come to me and tell me its unconstitutional. And, then you’d tell me there’s a court case to back it up. And you’d be right. If the bill passed, I’m sure the NRA would sue the state. I think we’re in a similar scenario here where if this bill passes that we’re going to be involved in another lawsuit that this bill is going to put is in the courts once again like we did last year with the 48-hour ban.”
Jernigan then asked if Van Huss thought his bill, in its current form, is constitutional. When Van Huss responded, “I do,” it was met with laughter from the Planned Parenthood group.
Jernigan went on to say that what Representative Cooper brought up about rape and incest gave him pause and related that to his three daughters. He added that he thought a lawsuit would likely ensue and that it would put a burden on taxpayers for what has been “settled law for 45 plus years.” That statement was met with loud applause from Planned Parenthood supporters.
Van Huss clarified that his goal with the legislation is not to get into any court. “My goal with this legislation is to save babies’ lives.” Van Huss continued, “As far as this being established law from 1973, I wasn’t around in 1973. I wasn’t in politics then,” and added resolutely, “I aim to fix it.”
Representative Miller, recognized by Chairman Terry, asked Van Huss about his use of the word “murder.” Van Huss’s response, “My aim with this legislation is to save babies’ lives,” was responded to again by Planned Parenthood with a laughter.
Chairman of the Public Health Subcommittee where the Heartbeat Bill was heard last week, Representative Jerry Sexton (R-Bean Station), asked two leading questions of the bill’s sponsor, to which Van Huss responded in the affirmative: Would the bill save the life of a baby of two consenting adults that had nothing wrong with it as far as anyone knows, but if it were born would live a normal healthy life and relative to constitutionality; and, is this something that was decided by the courts, and not part of our founding fathers’ bill of rights.
Sexton declared he would be supporting the bill, “Because I think the life of a child whether male or female is important.” Sexton then added, “And, as Ronald Reagan said one time, ‘It’s funny that only those that are alive are the ones against life.’” This time, it was the pro-life advocates who responded with a round of applause.
Freshman Representative Vincent Dixie (D-Nashville), married for over 20 years and the father of two daughters aged 12 and 14, said he couldn’t support the bill because he believes they should have choice and that it’s between “her, her family, her physician and God and no one else. Government does not play a role in it.”
Alluding to Van Huss’s earlier statement of knowing what evil looks like, Dixie asked if Van Huss could see the evil in a scenario that he started reading. He painted the picture of a high school athlete who was raped by her teacher or coach, didn’t tell anyone and tried to forget, until missing the first monthly period, terrified of pregnancy. A home pregnancy test kit reveals the worst fear of pregnancy. By the time a doctor confirms it, a fetal heartbeat is detected.
Dixie then asked, “Representative Van Huss, are you willing to put into law that this girl has to carry the baby while trying to finish high school, abandoning her sports team and seeing her rapist every day.”
“You asked if I could find the evil in this scenario. I cannot. Because the evil I find is what you left out. I don’t believe it’s right to rip an innocent baby limb from limb.”
Pressing further, but still reading from something in front of him, Dixie asked, “In that scenario, do you imagine that she would want to finish high school? How would she succeed? How do you think the rest of her life would look like?”
“I think that every single one of us obviously has been given the opportunity at life, and I don’t want to take that away from anybody.”
The exchange went further as Representative Dixie asked about the constitutionality of the bill and re-defining viability, all while continuing to read from something in front of him.
Representative Matthew Hill (R-Jonesborough), who successfully sponsored a 20-week abortion ban bill last year, was then recognized by Chairman Terry. Hill made a point of saying he didn’t need pre-written material to read from, because he could state the simple facts.
Hill first pointed out that, referring to the 2014 Tennessee constitutional amendment, the voters of the state voted for Amendment 1 which was later upheld in the court system, “The legislature, elected by the people of this state, will decide the issue of abortion.”
Secondly, as to the constitutionality of the legislation, Hill said, “We are operating under what we know at this time, in this moment, and that is the constitution of the great state of Tennessee permits us to have this discussion and permits this legislature to decide what, if any, restrictions would be on abortion.”
“To think that we have gotten to a place, Mr. Chairman, where we are having a debate about which life has more value, which life is more important, which life is better than another life is sick. It is absolutely sick and twisted. All, all lives matter. All.”
A polite but lengthy applause came from the pro-life advocates, while the Planned Parenthood supporters had no response.
Mr. Chairman, if someone rapes someone, that person should be put under the jail forever. I don’t think anyone would disagree with that. What baffles this legislator and many others on this committee is why does that same attitude then, why does that have to apply to an innocent person, in this case the unborn child.
The unborn child has not done anything wrong. The unborn child has not performed any acts of malice toward their fellow man. The unborn child has done nothing wrong. That unborn child has the right to live, to survive and, hopefully, by God’s grace, to thrive.
The fact that we have to have prepared questions, made up scenarios and things of that nature to try to make an emotional point on something that should be as clear as day.
“You have an innocent individual person. A person. Black or white, male or female. And, the fact that we’re debating and arguing and we’re deciding if we are the arbiters of life, shame on us. Shame on us for thinking we get to decide who lives and who dies,” overlapped by loud applause and some cheering.
“Mr. Chairman, shame on us for thinking we get to choose who lives and who dies. This is not the Roman circus. It’s the twenty-first century in the great state of Tennessee. Chairman Van Huss, I am proud to stand with you for life and, ultimately, to stand for these innocent little boys and little girls who want nothing more than a chance to live.”
Dixie raised his hand to make a response, although he began by saying “I have no idea where to start after that.”
Dixie then said, “You are correct, we do not play a role in the choice a person has. You used the word choice. We do not decide who lives and who dies, it’s up to the person.”
Returning to reading, Dixie added, “And, I believe this bill is aimed at restricting access to safe and legal abortion. You know, women’s health and lives should not be used as political pawns and that’s what we’re doing right here. That’s what we’re doing.”
Interrupted by applause, Dixie then continued, “If you truly believe we have no role in this, why is this bill even present?” “It makes no sense,” Dixie concluded, expressing niceties and appreciation for Representative Van Huss having the courage to stand up for what he believes in, “But, I also have to do the same.”
The debate went back to Representative Cooper, who had a variety of questions relative to the statistics of babies born before and after Roe v. Wade that Van Huss summarized as “a quality of life.”
Van Huss continued, “You guys can make your own decisions. I am not going to decide whose life is worth living and who is not. I know my assistant does not mind me giving out her name. My assistant is disabled, and she is the best assistant we have down here. It doesn’t matter who it is, I’m not going to judge whether or not somebody’s life is worth taking or worth giving.”
Another freshman legislator, Mark Hall (R-Cleveland), asking where the legislation originated from, was told by Van Huss that it started two years ago, but it’s been on his heart his whole life.
Hall responded saying that he will support the bill, because he supports life.
Gesturing toward the back of the room and alluding to a few moments earlier, Hall went on, “Did you see the young mother with the crying child that just left the room? How can anyone, how can anyone hurt an innocent, defenseless child?” A few cheers and applause from the pro-life organizers was met with someone shouting out that the mother opposes the bill.
Physician legislator Sabi “Doc” Kumar (R-Springfield) started his comments, “Representative Van Huss, I admire your courage for bringing this bill. You’re going to get a lot of love and a lot of hate and you will need a lot of prayer.”
Kumar continued, “You know, life is a gift from God and it’s really not a matter of choice it’s something that God has,” until he was interrupted by a call for the question by Representative Robin Smith (R-Hixson).
Chairman Terry allowed Kumar to finish his statement, which he later said he didn’t plan to make.
“The question of viability is important, because as health professionals and as a physician myself, I am called, it’s one of the sad duties we perform, to pronounce a patient who has passed away. When we approach that death, what do we do? One of the first things we do, and an important part of that pronouncement, is detecting the heartbeat. If there is no heartbeat, there is no life. It follows very easily that if there is a heartbeat, there is a life.”
“Viability begins to me at the very earliest conception. If given love, support and care, that little fertilized egg,” raising his hand and presenting a small space between his index finger and thumb, “is going to be a baby and a grown up.”
“I’m surprised that doctors or health care professionals who do perform an abortion, because if you go back to our basic rules the origin of the profession was certainly to support, enhance in every way, support life. The Hippocratic Oath if you look at the original of it, it’s an extremely pro-life document. It talks about euthanasia and in his original words, ‘I will not give pessary to a woman,’ because that was the form of abortion in those days. And somehow, just as we have taken our interpretation of Scripture of our basic foundations away and changed them and read them differently, somehow or another the basic Hippocratic Oath has been altered to the detriment of our society.
“Also, as health professionals, we are frequently credited with saving lives. And, sometimes, I tell patients it was just a bad gall bladder. But, in this situation, I want to again thank Chairman Van Huss for truly continuing to work and save lives.”
The roll call vote of 15 to 4 had all Republican Representatives voting aye: David Byrd, Ron Gant, Mark Hall, Esther Helton, Matthew Hill, Sabi “Doc” Kumar, Tom Leatherwood, Cameron Sexton, Jerry Sexton, Paul Sherrell, Robin Smith, Bryan Terry, Micah Van Huss, Kevin Vaughn and Sam Whitson.
Voting no were the four Democrats Barbara Cooper, Vincent Dixie, Darren Jernigan and Larry Miller.
The bill moves on to the House Calendar and Rules Committee where it will be scheduled to be voted on in a House floor session. Of the 99 members of the House of Representatives, a total of 51 between the sponsor and co-sponsors, are signed on to the Heartbeat Bill HB 0077.
The companion Senate bill, SB 1236, sponsored by Senator Mark Pody (R-Lebanon) will begin the approval process with the Senate Judiciary Committee.
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Laura Baigert is a senior reporter at The Tennessee Star.