NASHVILLE, Tennessee – The State Senate Judiciary Committee voted on Tuesday to send the heartbeat bill, which would ban abortions in the state of Tennessee after a fetal heartbeat is detected, to summer study.
After hearing about an hour and half of testimony and questions and answers from expert witnesses, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Mike Bell (R-Riceville) made the unusual move to make a motion to send the bill to summer study which passed by a vote of 5 Ayes, 3 Noes and 1 Pass.
Even for the late hour that the meeting went to – after 7 p.m. – there were still more than two dozen people in the audience, primarily pro-life supporters.
The move appeared to take pro-life committee members, testifying witnesses and those in the audience by complete surprise.
After meeting for nearly three hours on other bills, Senator Mark Pody (R-Lebanon) came to the podium to present the Heartbeat Bill under SB 1236.
In introducing SB 1236 bill, Sen. Pody said that in the nine years he had been in the legislature, “This is probably the most important piece of legislation I’ve brought this far.”
To demonstrate the gravity of the situation, Sen. Pody listed the wars the United States has been involved with going back to the Revolutionary War and said that in all the wars combined, we’ve lost about 1.3 million soldiers. Since the Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe v. Wade in 1973, Sen. Pody said, “We have lost 60 million babies. Sixty million,” he repeated.
Sen. Pody went on to say that 46 years ago when the Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade, as is traditional, the reasoning for the ruling is explained and insight is given as to what it would take to overturn the ruling, something the Supreme Court has done over 230 times.
With a view of the common question as to whether the legislation is constitutional or could successfully challenge the Roe v. Wade ruling, the amendment that makes the bill, Sen. Pody said, addresses some of the very things expressed in court opinions.
Chairman Bell went out of session to hear testimony from witnesses, the first being a volunteer attorney speaking on behalf of Planned Parenthood in opposition of the bill. The argument focused mainly on the cost of litigation other states have incurred in defending their heartbeat bills all of which have been struck down in the courts.
Speaking in favor of the legislation was an obstetrician/gynecologist based in Murfreesboro, Dr. Brent Boles, and former State Senator and attorney David Fowler, who has been President of Family Action Council of Tennessee since leaving the legislature in 2006.
Dr. Boles, in addition to his private practice and several teaching positions, estimates he has delivered over 7,000 babies, has nearly 15,000 patients in his private practice database and, since getting an ultrasound machine in his office in January 2011, has reviewed over a hundred thousand ultrasound images.
Dr. Boles testified that a fact ignored by abortion supporters is that medical schools require a course in embryology which teaches that life begins at conception. As a physician, he is held responsible not for one person, but two, every time he sees a woman with a viable pregnancy, a term used in the proposed legislation. The assessment of the viability of an unborn child can accomplished at four, five or six weeks using sensitive testing for hormones and ultrasound not available at the time of Roe v. Wade in 1973.
Fowler cited last week’s decision by the 6th Circuit Court regarding a Kentucky law that requires doctors to conduct an ultrasound and present the results to and let the mother listen to the heartbeat of her unborn baby before she consents to an abortion. According to Fowler, the ruling by the 6th Circuit Court – the same court that would hear any challenge to Tennessee’s heartbeat bill – quoted from a decision of the 8th Circuit Court referencing that abortion will terminate the life of a whole, separate human being.
Through more than an hour of testimony and questions and answers with the committee members, Dr. Boles made the medical and scientific case for individual personhood of the unborn child, and Fowler made the case that the legal argument that the unborn is a distinct, separate whole human being that has the right to life, liberty and property has not yet been made.
As the exchanges concluded, Chairman Bell complimented the two witnesses for their heart and fight for the pro-life movement.
Reading from a prepared statement, Chairman Bell said the heartbeat bill is a bill with the best of intentions, which is to save as many lives as possible. He commended the bill sponsor for being a man of strong conviction and said he shared that conviction.
Sen. Bell read on, using the word “but” which is generally accepted to mean that everything before it is to be discounted and what comes next is more important. Sen. Bell finished his sentence with, “To be successful, strong conviction is not enough.”
The success of the pro-life movement in Tennessee was cited by Sen. Bell, as he read on, mentioning the heartbeat bills being struck own in other states that then were forced to pay legal fees.
“My conscience will not allow me to put Tennessee on that path.”
Sen. Bell said he was going to move the bill to summer study, which was immediately seconded by Sen. Gardenhire, giving the impression that he may have known of the motion in advance.
For those familiar with the legislative process, “summer study” is viewed as in effect “killing” the proposed legislation. But, Sen. Bell promised a true and honest study of the issue with a minimum of two days of hearings in mid-August.
The charge, according to Sen. Bell, is to make sure the legislation can stand up constitutionally, and that would include a legislative record that includes testimony. Moving the legislation to a study hearing on August 13 and 14, would give opponents and proponents the opportunity to voice their opinion, thoroughly vet the measure and lay a legislative record.
Sen. Pody, as the bill sponsor, was afforded an opportunity for closing comments. Under the circumstances, he graciously acknowledged Sen. Bell for being one of the most pro-life individuals he knows.
Acknowledging Dr. Boles’ qualifications, Sen. Pody said “We’ve had the closest thing I know of in an expert witness. I don’t know if we searched the country we could have had a more qualified person.”
About the legislation, Sen. Pody said it would not have the same failures as the other ones did, even though the House passed a bill that would have. “This bill has been amended,” appealed Sen. Pody, “and is uniquely qualified that should stand up in court with new ground.”
Sen. Pody concluded about his proposed legislation, “I don’t want it to go to summer study. I want this bill to go forward.” Alluding to Tennessee’s ability to lead on the issue, Sen. Pody said, “We can be the voice.”
By roll call vote, the motion to move the bill to summer study passed with 5 Yes votes from Mike Bell (R-Riceville), Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga), Sara Kyle (D-Memphis), Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol), John Stevens (R-Huntingdon); 3 No votes from Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma), Katrina Robinson (D-Memphis) and Dawn White (R-Murfreesboro); and, 1 pass from Kerry Roberts (R-Springfield).
Outside Senate Hearing Room I, where the Judiciary Committee met for nearly four and a half hours in total, the Planned Parenthood Executive Director Francie Hunt gathered with about a half dozen supporters outwardly pleased with the outcome of the heartbeat bill.
Sen. Kerry Roberts told The Tennessee Star after the vote, “As a sponsor of the bill, I hoped that it would pass the Senate Judiciary Committee as amended. Chairman Bell made a motion to send the bill to summer study. Chairman Bell is a dear friend and I appreciate what he was trying to do, but that wasn’t my first choice. I opted to pass, which, in the Senate is considered a polite no.”
The House version of the heartbeat bill, HB 0077 sponsored by Representative Micah Van Huss (R-Jonesborough) made its way through the committee process and passed the full House on March 7 with 65 Ayes, 21 Nays and 7 Present Not Voting.
Meanwhile, another bill “Human Life Protection Act,” is sponsored by Senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville) and Representative Susan Lynn (R-Mt. Juliet) as SB 1257 and HB 1029, respectively.
The bill, if passed, would ban abortion in the state effective upon the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade or amending the U.S. Constitution to allow states to prohibit abortion. Exceptions are created for situations where the abortion is necessary to prevent death or serious risk of substantial or irreversible impairment of major bodily function of the pregnant woman.
For the offense of committing criminal abortion, the legislation would create a Class C felony for a person who performs or attempts to perform an abortion.
The law would not subject the pregnant woman on whom an abortion was performed or attempted to be performed to criminal conviction or penalty.
The Senate version of the bill was taken up immediately prior to the heartbeat bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee and passed with 7 Ayes and 2 Nays.
On the House side, at the outset of the Health Committee meeting early the same morning, the bill was going to be brought back to committee after having failed in Subcommittee two weeks ago. But, time for the meeting ran out without the bill being brought up. Another meeting of the House Health Committee is scheduled for Wednesday morning.
It is unclear if the Human Life Protection Act will be brought up during the meeting, as it appears that there has been a bit of a legislative stalemate between the House and Senate over the two pro-life bills.
In order for the Human Life Protection Act to take effect, it will take a constitutional amendment, or the more likely situation, that a case would cause the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade
Governor Bill Lee, who made his pro-life stance known throughout his gubernatorial campaign, as recently as last month made his support for a heartbeat bill known as he attended a Tri-Cities Rally for Life. Governor Lee said about the heartbeat bill, reported WJHL News Channel 11, “We should continue to advocate for the lives of the unborn and that’s why I’m pursuing this legislation or supporting it.”
Laura Baigert is a senior reporter with The Tennessee Star.