Tennessee lawmakers were warned Tuesday that, should the GOP-controlled Legislature choose to pass one of the strictest abortion bans in the nation, taxpayers will likely be forced to pick up cost of the losing battle.
Abortion rights groups threatened to sue the state during the two-day hearing revolving around proposed legislation seeking to ban abortion once a pregnancy is detected. However, Republican lawmakers bristled at similar sentiments from the GOP-friendly Tennessee Right to Life.
"My point: I don't think this bill is a good one," said Paul Linton, an attorney for Right to Life. "You don't have to do anything. There are already things in the works."
Linton added that Tennessee risks losing hundreds of thousands of dollars to take an anti-abortion battle all the way to the Supreme Court, pointing out that the court's current makeup still doesn't guarantee enough support to overturn the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.
That ruling established a nationwide right to abortion. Other high court rulings have determined states cannot place undue burdens on a woman's constitutional right to abortion before a fetus is viable — typically between 24 and 28 weeks.
Yet Republican Sen. Janice Bowling, of Tullahoma, balked at Linton's suggestion for Tennessee to wait and see if other states are successful in their anti-abortion efforts, arguing that GOP lawmakers can't sit idly by in the nationwide trend to chip away at abortion access.
"This bill is not meant to do harm; it is meant to save lives," Bowling said.
Meanwhile, fellow Republican Sen. Rusty Crowe, of Johnson City, asked why imposing an extremely strict abortion ban wouldn't make Tennessee unique in the national anti-abortion fight.
Linton disagreed, saying that the more a law conflicts with Roe v. Wade, the harder it is for a state to justify its existence — opening itself up to being ignored by the high court.
Currently, a handful of Tennessee Republicans are trying to garner enough support for a sweeping abortion ban with the intention of having more states seek to challenge Roe v. Wade.
However, such proponents have run into challenges by Tennessee's top legislative leaders. Last year, a so-called "fetal heartbeat bill" advanced through the Tennessee House but stalled in the Senate when key lawmakers raised concerns about the bill not surviving legal scrutiny.
"Make no mistake, the (American Civil Liberties Union) will sue if this bill comes into law," said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee. "Tennessee taxpayers will likely pay hundreds of thousands in litigation costs to lose in court. This is not speculation."
Earlier this year, lawmakers advanced legislation that would effectively ban almost all abortions in Tennessee should Roe v. Wade ever be overturned. Known as a trigger ban , the law includes exceptions for medical emergencies only, not for rape or incest. Doctors who violate the law would face a felony charge under the ban.
Tuesday was markedly more emotional than the previous day, with lawmakers more willing to challenge speakers and several audience members asked to leave for being too disorderly.
The end of the roughly five-hour meeting was completely upended when a speaker refused to stop talking against the proposed abortion ban bill even after her microphone had been cut off.
Instead, Cherisse Scott — who founded SisterReach, a nonprofit dedicated to "reproductive justice" organization — turned to the audience and continued her passionate speech criticizing Republican lawmakers and the handling of the meeting.
"Where have you been? Have you ever taught a sexual class?" Scott said. "Do you know your first day of your period? If you do not know, that means you would not know if you would be ovulating."
Ultimately, the panel concluded the hearing without taking a vote or making any meaningful decisions. Instead, the committee vowed to revisit the issue over the next few months before taking it up during the 2020 legislative session.