NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Tennessee is the latest state to move closer to enacting one of the strictest abortion laws in the nation.
House lawmakers on Thursday passed legislation that would ban most abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected, about six weeks into pregnancy. The bill is almost guaranteed to face a lawsuit if it becomes law. However, Republicans in Tennessee and across the country have continued in their efforts to curb abortions.
"The unborn need us," said Republican Rep. Micah Van Huss, sponsor of the proposal. "We are Tennesseans. If everyone does what's wrong, we do what's right."
Similar bills are being considered in other states, including Georgia, Mississippi, Florida, Kentucky, Ohio and South Carolina.
The goal is to trigger a legal challenge to the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that established a nationwide right to abortion and possibly upend other rulings that 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.
Thursday's debate turned testy at times between Democratic and Republican lawmakers. Rep. London Lamar, 28, a newly elected Democrat, argued the issue was particularly personal for her because she was likely the only woman in the chamber who could still give birth.
"Most of all of you are men. A woman's voice should not be decided by those who cannot have kids," said Lamar, who had previously said she was deciding when to have children.
The statement sparked murmurs from lawmakers, with some Republican women responding that listening to their child's first heartbeat was meaningful and evidence that an abortion should not take place once a heartbeat is detected.
Democratic Rep. Gloria Johnson stood the entire time of the debate, attempting to get Republican House Speaker Glen Casada to call on her so she could pitch amending the bill to include exceptions for cases of rape and incest. Yet Johnson was ignored the entire time while other Republicans and Democrats debated the bill for roughly 45 minutes.
Ultimately, GOP leadership used a legislative procedure that forced an end to the debate before everyone had a chance to speak. In a Republican supermajority, such moves can easily pass in the House.
Two dozen protesters had stood outside the House chamber as lawmakers headed to the floor, chanting and holding signs about the possible harm women would face if unable to undergo an abortion.
HB 77 now moves to the Senate. While the chamber is also controlled by Republicans, Senate Speaker Randy McNally said Thursday he doesn't plan on moving as fast as the House.
"I think we're going to take a good look at the court cases that are out there and I think we'll, towards the end of the session, make a decision on whether to take it up or not," he said.
If successful, Republican Gov. Bill Lee has said he would sign the bill should it reach his desk and has downplayed the constitutional concerns as an issue for the courts and not his office.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee on Thursday quickly issued a statement once the House passed the bill warning it will sue the state if the bill becomes law.
"With our partners, we are working to stop this bill in the Senate," said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of Tennessee's ACLU, in a statement. "However, should it be signed into law, the ACLU of Tennessee and our client are prepared to file a lawsuit immediately."
Associated Press writer Jonathan Mattise in Nashville contributed to this report.
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