A bill that would ban some abortions at 20 weeks passed in a Senate committee Wednesday, despite Tennessee's attorney general previously calling the measure "constitutionally suspect."
Under the measure, doctors could not perform abortions at a gestational age of 20 weeks or after without first determining that the unborn child is viable. Viability would be defined as an infant capable of "sustained survival outside the womb, with or without medical assistance." An exception would be made in the case of a medical emergency.
A doctor would face felony criminal charges for violating the measure, which was sponsored by Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald. It now faces a full Senate vote.
Hensley, a medical doctor, said his bill gives legal definition for the first time to what it means when a mother's health is threatened.
The bill defines a mother's health as being threatened if she suffers "serious risk of the substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function" which directly or indirectly causes "the substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function." It would not apply to a woman's mental health.
Hensley amended his bill to address some of the attorney general's concerns in his previous opinion.
A lobbyist for the Tennessee chapter of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said her organization was opposed to the bill. Critics say the proposal would put doctors at risk of criminal prosecution when they are using their best judgment.
"Experts can disagree whether it was medical necessity," said Beth Berry, a lobbyist for the organization. "Experts can disagree whether it was an emergency."
Under the measure, doctors could defend themselves if the unborn child was not viable or if the abortion was deemed necessary to prevent the death of the pregnant woman - or to prevent serious risks to the mother.
Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, tried to get Hensley to change language in the bill that he thought would give physicians more protections. But Senate Judiciary Committee voted down that idea.
"This is a deterrent legislation," Hensley said. "I don't think that people are going to be charged necessarily, but people know the law. It's already in our code about not being able to do an abortion on a viable infant, and this is just trying to define more of what that means."
The House version of the bill, sponsored by Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, advanced in the House Finance Ways and Means Subcommittee Wednesday.
The bill continues to move, even as Attorney General Herbert Slatery III agreed a week ago to drop two abortion restrictions amid a court challenge over their constitutionality.
One of the requirements mandated that abortion providers have hospital admitting privileges. The other forced abortion clinics to meet hospital-level surgical standards.
House Finance Ways and Means Subcommittee Chair Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, told fellow lawmakers that the attorney general still stood by his earlier opinion that the measure is constitutionally suspect but was prepared to defend it if it passed into law.
Jonathan Mattise contributed to this report.
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