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Tennessee lawmakers mull passing strict abortion ban

Tennessee lawmakers said this week they are considering whether to seek one of the nation’s strictest abortion bans even as such laws continue to be struck down in court.

At issue is a proposal to prohibit abortion once a pregnancy is detected. While a similar bill stalled in the Republican-controlled Statehouse earlier this year, backers are renewing efforts now to collect enough support ahead of the 2020 legislative session.

“There may be no other issue that creates this much passion,” said Sen. Mike Bell, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, during the kickoff of a two-day hearing.

At Bell’s instructions, the informal hearing won’t result in a vote or decision of any kind once testimony concludes on Tuesday. And lawmakers on the judiciary panel were largely discouraged from making political statements and instead told to ask questions about the legislation.

But absent meaningful decisions or real action, the meetings are expected to offer a snapshot of the current tension Republican lawmakers are wrestling with while deciding how far they’ll go to ban abortion in their states.

“What we’re saying in Tennessee is that we’re looking for a way that says medically, scientifically life does start at conception, said Republican Sen. Janice Bowling, of Tullahoma.

Nationwide, abortion opponents are emboldened by new conservatives on the Supreme Court and are seeking cases to challenge Roe v. Wade, the court’s 1973 ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.

As part of the national trend, six states — Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and Ohio — passed bills this year banning abortions around six weeks into pregnancy. Most of those have since faced legal challenges, where federal judges have indicated that the laws will likely fail to hold up under the legal precedents set by the high court.

The Roe v. Wade 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.

Tennessee attempted to pass the same bill as well during this year’s legislative session but stopped short after legislative leaders raised concerns that the measure would result in the state losing costly court battles.

Yet supporters of tighter abortion access proposals have continued to push for an outright ban in Tennessee from both lawmakers and activists. During Monday’s hearing, hundreds of anti-abortion supporters flooded the hearing room wearing bright red T-shirts and holding signs that read “abortion is murder.”

Abortion rights supporters also attended the hearing, surrounding the walls of the hearing room and filling overflow areas while holding their own signs urging the importance of protecting a woman’s right to an abortion.

Just five anti-abortion experts spoke on Monday, all of whom were men and largely avoided any discussion about women’s bodies. The speakers ranged from the Family Action Council of Tennessee, the National Right to Life Committee and the Center for Religious Expression.

Tuesday’s hearing is expected to go longer and will include several women speakers, including representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Women’s Law Center.