NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Legislation banning abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected stalled in Tennessee on Tuesday amid concerns that passing the measure would result in the state losing costly court battles.
"So far, these bills have not fared well in the courts. In other states, the heartbeat bill has been struck down and states have been forced to pay attorney fees to Planned Parenthood. ... My conscience will not allow me to put Tennessee on that path," said Committee Chairman Mike Bell, a Republican from Riceville.
The committee's 5-3 decision came after the same panel advanced a separate anti-abortion bill — known as the Human Life Protection Act — that would ensure most abortions would be outlawed should the U.S. Supreme Court overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision.
Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota and South Dakota have similar laws on the books triggering abortion bans if the nation's high court overturns the 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationwide. Kentucky and Missouri are considering enacting such bills this year.
The two proposals have split Tennessee's GOP-dominated General Assembly this year as Republican lawmakers have fought to find ways to undermine abortion rights, but have disagreed on the best proposal to submit to Gov. Bill Lee's desk.
Notably, Tennessee's Right to Life opposed the so-called fetal heartbeat bill, arguing it would defend bills that could survive legal scrutiny. During Tuesday's committee hearing, the group's attorney, Will Brewer, told lawmakers that the trigger ban was "the only pro-life" legislation his group could endorse on the panel's agenda for that day.
Yet other groups pleaded with the panel not to give up on their intent to limit access abortion in Tennessee.
"Yes, we might have to pay those legal fees. Is defending those rights of the unborn worth it? In my opinion, it is," said David Fowler, president of the Family Action Council of Tennessee.
Earlier this year, Lee promised to sign the fetal heartbeat bill and waved aside concerns that previous versions of the same proposal in other states failed to be upheld in court. With the House already clearing the measure with just a handful of Democratic opposition, the Senate was seen as the key barrier to the bill's passage.
"We have done all we can to defund Planned Parenthood. We have put in place reasonable restrictions to help prevent abortion. Passing a constitutionally suspect bill now would give the courts an opportunity to erase the progress we have made," Senate Speaker Randy McNally in a statement said.
It's still unclear, however, how far the trigger ban bill will survive this year in the General Assembly. A House subcommittee voted against the measure in March, sparking concern the issue may be dead for the year — though the House Health Committee is expected to reconsider the issue later this session.