- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 3, 2017

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Tennessee would ban abortions after 20 weeks if a doctor determines the fetus is viable through required tests, under a bill approved Wednesday by the Tennessee House.

The bill now heads to the desk of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, who hasn’t made a decision on it yet.

In a 68-18 vote, the House approved the legislation that subjects doctors to felony penalties. The ban wouldn’t apply if the mother faces risks of death or serious damage to a major bodily function.

The Senate passed the bill earlier this week. Haslam said that he won’t make a decision until he talks with Attorney General Herbert Slatery, who has said his office would defend the measure if it were to become law, despite previously calling it “constitutionally suspect.”

Supporters of the bill contended it can withstand a constitutional challenge, comparing it to 20 laws in other states. They said the bill protects unborn children.

“The goal of this legislation is to prevent the deliberate killing of a large group of people,” said Rep. Matthew Hill, a Jonesborough Republican sponsor of the bill.

Some Democrats argued that the bill remains vulnerable to a costly legal challenge that could strike it from state law. They said the bill bucks established medical standards and interferes with a woman’s ability to make deeply personal decisions.

On Wednesday, the House Republican majority voted against including exceptions for rape and incest proposed by Democrats.

Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville, said the legislation could end up forcing young girls who were raped to have babies.

“What you need to do is punish men who can’t keep their zippers up and keep their pants on,” Jones said.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ state chapter has still expressed worries that doctors could risk facing criminal charges for simply using their best medical judgment, a main issue raised in the attorney general’s opinion.

Without proving the doctor has “guilty knowledge” or recklessness, the attorney general wrote, “such statutes impermissibly subject a physician to criminal liability even though he was acting in good faith in determining whether a medical emergency or medical necessity exists.”

Paul Linton, an attorney with Tennessee Right to Life, said an amendment approved during legislative committee work would ensure that “there’s no possibility that a doctor could be convicted if he’s acting in good faith” because of the exceptions added.

Slatery’s opinion also said the bill could be unconstitutional because it doesn’t account for severe mental and emotional harm when considering if an abortion is medically necessary.

The bill specifies that abortions would still be outlawed if a woman has a mental health condition, diagnosed or otherwise, that would lead her to commit suicide or irreversibly harm herself if she doesn’t have the abortion.

Linton disagreed with that provision, adding that he believes U.S. Supreme Court precedent allows limiting post-viability abortion to women who have serious physical health reasons.

The bill’s passage follows a decision by the attorney general last month to drop his defense of two other abortion restrictions in state law and stop enforcing them because their constitutionality was challenged in court.

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