Governor Haslam signs post-viability abortion ban

Gov. Bill Haslam has signed into law a late-term abortion ban that both critics and his own attorney general have said is likely unconstitutional.

In an e-mailed statement, Haslam wrote: “I have reviewed the final language of SB 1180/HB 1189 and its potential impact. The Tennessee Infants Protection Act prohibits purposely performing post-viability abortions, except when a physician determines in his or her good faith medical judgment that either the unborn child is not viable or that the procedure is necessary to prevent serious risk to the mother. Rather than being a ‘20-week abortion ban,’ as some have described it, the bill requires physicians to assess viability beginning at 20 weeks gestational age, absent a medical emergency.

“The Tennessee Attorney General has said he would defend this law, and the United States Supreme Court has not yet decided the mental health exception issue discussed in the Attorney General’s opinion. For those reasons, I have signed this legislation into law.”

Tennessee already has a law banning abortions post-viability. But the new ban goes much further. In a letter sent to Haslam earlier in the day, the ACLU of Tennessee cited multiple issues with the bill’s constitutionality.

“This measure drastically limits a woman’s constitutional right to make her own medical decisions. The courts long ago established constitutional precedent that the decision to terminate a pregnancy belongs to a woman and those she chooses to be involved, not the government,” wrote Hedy Weinberg, the ACLU’s executive director.

“The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that legislation imposing criminal liability without requiring that the defendant have at least some level of intent to commit a criminal act is unconstitutionally vague. SB 1180/HB 1189 threatens doctors with criminal liability for decisions they make when acting in good faith using their best medical judgment. The doctor would, at know time, be committing a crime or even acting with recklessness. The bill, therefore, runs afoul of the constitution.”

And in opposition to Haslam’s statement, Amanda Allen, the senior state legislative counsel for the Center for Reproductive Rights, said that the Supreme Court has indeed weighed in.

“Laws that ban abortion after viability must adequately protect the woman’s life and health, but this bill’s exception is so narrow as to be essentially meaningless. The Supreme Court has never held that health can be defined as narrowly as this bill does, and in fact has explicitly stated that mental health is a component of women’s health,” Allen said.

It’s possible Haslam simply signed the bill because he knew the Legislature had the votes to override a veto. The legislation passed the Senate on a 27 to 3 vote, and it passed the House 68 to 18. And supporters of the measure were fulsome with praise Friday.

But Planned Parenthood called the move “cruel and dangerous.” And the Tennessee Democratic Party bashed Haslam for siding with “extremists in his party over the well being of Tennesseans.”

“If Republicans legitimately wanted to find real solutions to this serious issue they would help Democrats do so through smart public policy, like age-appropriate reproductive health education that includes teaching abstinence and access to affordable healthcare and contraception. Tennessee Republicans have no answers for the 364,000 people who are uninsured and have no access to health care and they have done nothing for the over 300,000 children living in poverty in our state. It is not surprising that they focus on the most divisive issues they can find, and people are tired of it,” e-mailed party chair Mary Mancini.