NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) – A new approach to banning abortion moved one step closer to reality in a Tennessee House Health Subcommittee on Tuesday afternoon. Rep. Rebecca Alexander (R-Jonesborough) presented an amended bill based on the Texas abortion law that went into effect in September 2021.
Alexander’s bill, HB2779, was heard before the Health Subcommittee on March 15, discussed last in a list of several actions by the representative.
“This bill is modeled directly after the legislation passed in Texas last year,” Alexander said, citing a significant decline in reported abortions within the state. That same framework has received opposition at both federal and state levels within Texas, including a failed challenge in the state’s Supreme Court on March 11.
“While the Texas law prohibits abortion once medical professionals cant detect cardiac activity, usually around six weeks, the Tennessee language proposes to prohibit all abortion,” Alexander told House members.
Rep. Alexander explained that “any citizen” can bring a civil suit against anyone who performs, aids or intends to perform an abortion. No connection to the pregnant woman or practitioner is required within the bill, according to 39-15-224(a).
“It leaves enforcement up to private citizens through civil lawsuits instead of criminal prosecutors,” said Alexander.
Pregnant mothers seeking an abortion from a licensed physician are not subject to civil liability and cannot be sued.
In subsection (k)(4), Alexander’s bill specifies that suits cannot be filed by “a person who impregnated a woman seeking an abortion through an act of rape, sexual assault, or incest” but that abortions of pregnancies’ arising from the same rape are not legal.
Pushback immediately came from Democrat Representative Bob Freeman in the case of rape.
“That rapist could impregnate a young lady, a minor, and the rapists mother or father could bring suit against that minor if they decided to get an abortion if this passes?” Freeman asked Alexander in session.
“My assumption is that they could,” Alexander responded. “Because it’s any citizen, other than the rapist.”
Alexander explained further that while the rapist or someone who commits incest or sexual assault could not file the lawsuit themselves, someone else can on their behalf – and potentially be awarded $10,000 in damages in court.
Alexander’s bill would prohibit abortions for Tennessee women in all but one specific set of circumstances – if the abortion is necessary to prevent death or bodily harm to the mother, though the same section also includes an explicit ban on abortions performed in fear of bodily harm or death due to the mother’s mental health, such as suicide.
One physician testified to the committee Tuesday in opposition to the bill, stating that he believes the measures outlined would prevent women’s health professionals from fulfilling their responsibilities to patients.
“This bill will significantly impact my ability and the ability of all of my OB/GYN colleagues throughout Tennessee to make informed, safe and private healthcare decisions with and for our patients to achieve the best desired healthcare options possible,” Dr. Aaron Campbell, OB/GYN resident and Tennessee native said. “It’s important to note that abortions will occur whether or not they are legally accessible, what is important for the legislature is to recognize that worldwide the highest rates of unsafe abortions are completed in areas with the most restrictive abortion laws.”
The bill also extends potential civil liability to those who “aid or abet” the performance of an abortion, including anyone who pays for the procedure, knowingly or not. This includes insurance providers.
Freeman continued to push back on the idea of civil lawsuits in session Tuesday.
“This allows people who have no knowledge, no standing, they have not been harmed to bring a lawsuit against any doctor that they believe has performed an abortion?” Rep. Freeman asked.
“That is correct,” responded Alexander.
There is no exception in the bill for abortion in the case of rape or incest – or if the unborn child has a significant health risk or disability itself.
After the date of an abortion, the law prescribes a statute of limitations of six years in which anyone who becomes aware of the procedure can file a lawsuit.
The subcommittee voted to advance the bill to the full Tennessee House Health Committee for hearing. If recommended by the full Health Committee, HB2779 would then proceed to the TN House Calendar and Rules Committee for another debate on whether the bill will reach the House floor for a third and final consideration.