Gov. Bill Lee on May 10 signed the Human Life Protection Act into law, which poises the state to immediately restore protective pro-life statutes in the event the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision making abortion legal in every state is reversed.
The new law marks a shift in pro-life legislative strategy during the 2019 legislative session. Earlier in the session, a bill that would have banned abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected enjoyed strong support in the General Assembly and across the state.
However, “heartbeat” laws have been struck down by courts across the country, and state pro-life leaders asked lawmakers to table the heartbeat bill and instead support the Human Life Protection Act.
The heartbeat bill passed the House easily early in the Tennessee legislative session. Two pro-life Republicans joined Democrats in killing the Human Life Protection Act in the House Health Subcommittee. But through the leadership of assistant majority leader Ron Gant, the HLPA was brought up for a recall motion in the House Health Committee.
A recall motion requires a majority of full committee members to recall a dead bill from the subcommittee and bring it up for a vote in the full Health Committee. The House Health Committee voted to recall the HLPA and then passed it overwhelmingly the next week and sent it to the House floor, where it was passed resoundingly.
In the meantime, the Senate leadership heard the concerns of Tennessee Right to Life and the Catholic bishops of Tennessee over the heartbeat bill’s constitutionality, prompting the Senate Judiciary Committee to vote to send the heartbeat bill to a summer study committee, where it will be studied over the summer by legal experts to examine and see if it can be amended and made constitutional.
Bishop Richard F. Stika of Knoxville, Bishop J. Mark Spalding of Nashville, and Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, then-administrator of the Diocese of Memphis, expressed their doubts about the heartbeat bill.
Instead, the bishops pledged their support for the Human Life Protection Act that was introduced in the legislature on Feb. 13.
Bishop Stika and Bishop Spalding met with Gov. Lee in Nashville on April 23 to discuss various issues.
In contrast to heartbeat bills that have been struck down in each state where they have passed, the Human Life Protection Act mirrors statutes in other states that have been on the books for years without legal challenge, according to Brian Harris, president of Tennessee Right to Life.
Such laws establish that upon the reversal of Roe v. Wade, in whole or part, a state’s protective pro-life statutes will be immediately restored, which is key in Tennessee, where pre-Roe v. Wade abortion regulations were stripped from state law books in the 1980s.
Mr. Harris said similar protection acts have existed for years in Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota, and South Dakota without legal challenge. Another was recently passed in Arkansas, and others have been debated in Kentucky, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas.
“As states like New York prepare for the overturn of Roe v. Wade by passing laws to remove any restrictions for abortion, Tennessee also seeks to prepare for that eventuality by ensuring that we have in place protections for our children, women, and girls,” Mr. Harris previously said.
He noted that there is hope Roe v. Wade will be struck down or amended, allowing the HLPA to go into effect.
U.S. Supreme Court observers believe the chances are stronger that justices will review Roe v. Wade in light of the number of states passing more restrictive abortion laws, which are drawing legal challenges.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey last month signed into law a comprehensive abortion ban, and the state of Georgia last month passed a heartbeat bill.
Abortion clinics in Tennessee are reporting increases in business from women who are traveling across state lines from Alabama and Georgia to terminate their pregnancies.