Tennessee enacts strong pro-life law; court battle begins

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NASHVILLE (BP) -- Tennessee enacted a law Monday that provides some of the country's strongest protections for unborn children, but it remained in effect less than an hour -- at least for now.


Gov. Bill Lee signed legislation that prohibits an abortion when a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which can be as early as six weeks. The measure also bans an abortion when the doctor knows the request for the procedure is driven by the race, sex or health/disability diagnosis of a child.



A federal judge, however, quickly blocked enforcement of the law at the request of Planned Parenthood, the country's leading abortion provider, and other abortion rights advocates. The temporary restraining order was issued within 45 minutes of Lee's action, according to The Tennessean newspaper of Nashville.


Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore said efforts by abortion rights organizations "to delay the implementation of this law only further imperil the lives of those who cannot speak for themselves."


"Protecting vulnerable human beings from violence is the most basic responsibility of the state. This new law recognizes that responsibility," said Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).


In written comments, Moore said he is encouraged with "this important pro-life step" taken by Governor Lee and the Tennessee legislature, though he added "there remains much work to do, both in terms of safeguarding human dignity in the law and in the application" of such law.


In a Facebook Live video of the signing, Lee described the new law as "arguably the most conservative, pro-life piece of legislation in the country."


"Life is precious, and everything that is precious is worth protecting. We know that in Tennessee," the Republican governor said. "It's our responsibility to protect the most vulnerable in our community, and certainly the most vulnerable in Tennessee includes (unborn children)."


The new law represents a transformation in abortion restrictions for the state. An Associated Press analysis published in September 2019 showed Tennessee ranked fourth among the states in the percentage of abortions provided to out-of-state residents during the previous decade.


"Beginning today, the Volunteer State will no longer be an abortion destination in the South," said Brent Leatherwood, the ERLC's chief of staff, in written remarks. "For years, dedicated individuals have sought to protect the dignity of the preborn by requiring an ultrasound or passing a pro-life constitutional amendment. In many ways, this new law represents the culmination of those efforts, and that is something every Christian can be grateful for."


Tennessee's new law and the court order reflect the ongoing battle over abortion that is being waged in the states.


Other pro-life efforts to protect unborn babies and their mothers have received setbacks recently. Also Monday, a federal judge permanently blocked Georgia's heartbeat law. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down June 29 a Louisiana law that requires a physician to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of a facility where he or she performs an abortion.


States have enacted a flurry of abortion laws -- primarily pro-life ones -- in the last decade. Last year, at least Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio and Utah enacted versions of abortion bans.


Some states expanded abortion rights in 2019, including Illinois, Maine, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont. This year, Virginia enacted a law rescinding some abortion restrictions.


The new Tennessee law includes what is known as a "ladder" provision, which consists of prohibitions at intervals further into the pregnancy -- along with severability clauses at each step -- in an effort to assure approval in the court system at some point.


The measure has an exception to protect the mother's life but not one in case of rape or incest, The Tennessean reported. According to the newspaper, the legislation also:


-- Requires an ultrasound test and information on the unborn child's gestational age to be provided to a woman before she undergoes an abortion.


-- Prohibits abortion for a juvenile in custody of the Tennessee Department of Children's Services.


The Center for Reproductive Rights, American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU of Tennessee joined Planned Parenthood in seeking the restraining order granted by Federal Judge William Campbell.


Alexis McGill Johnson, Planned Parenthood's president, said in a written statement after the order was issued, "Banning abortion is illegal, full stop. Planned Parenthood won't back down in the face of any attacks on our rights and freedoms. Not today, not ever."


Campbell's temporary order will end July 27, but a hearing on a preliminary injunction, which could extend the halt on the law's enforcement, is set for July 24.


The Supreme Court struck down state bans on abortion in its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. In a 1992 opinion, the high court affirmed Roe but also ruled states may regulate abortion to protect the lives and health of women.


Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.

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