Tennessee bishops oppose 'Heartbeat Bill' over legal concerns

shutterstock 1177812817 Doctor reading test results of pregnant woman by ultrasound. | Rattiya Thongdumhyu_Shutterstock

The Catholic bishops of Tennessee have voiced their opposition to a fetal heartbeat law being considered in the state and instead urged alternative legislation less open to legal challenges.


The leaders of the state's three dioceses released an open letter Feb. 26 stating that while they are opposed to abortion, they believe the Heartbeat Bill would fail a likely court challenge.


"We believe that the sanctity of human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception to natural death," said Bishop Richard F. Stika of Knoxville, Bishop J. Mark Spalding of Nashville, and Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville in a letter that was originally published in the Tennessee Register.


Although Kurtz's archdiocese is in Kentucky, he currently serves as the apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Memphis.


"While we wholeheartedly support the intention of the 'Heartbeat Bill' being considered by the Tennessee Legislature, we must also be prudent in how we combat the pro-abortion evil that dwells in our society," said the bishops.


Despite enjoying majority support in both houses of the state legislature, and the endorsement of Gov. Bill Lee, the bill is also opposed by Tennessee Right to Life, the state's leading pro-life group.


In 1973, the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade found that a woman had a constitutional right to abortion throughout pregnancy. This, the bishops noted, created a legal precedent that must be considered when framing legislation that seeks to restrict abortion.


The bishops cited similar laws in other states that were passed, but never went into effect because of legal challenges. In those cases, the laws were found to be unconstitutional, and the state was forced to pay significant sums of money to the lawyers representing the pro-abortion challengers to the laws.


"Given the field of legal realities that we must consider, we believe it would not be prudent to support the 'Heartbeat Bill' knowing the certainty of its overturning when challenged, in addition to the court ordered fees that would be paid to the pro-abortion plaintiffs," they said.

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Planned Parenthood, the nation's largest chain of abortion providers, has already said they would file suit against Tennessee if the Human Life Protection Act were to become law.


If Roe v. Wade were to be overturned, it would free up states to enact their own restrictions on abortion.


The bishops said they would prefer to see pro-life legislation less likely to face legal challenges and more likely to be found constitutional. They voiced "urgent support" for an alternative Human Life Protection Act which would, in the event that Roe were overturned, trigger an automatic ban on abortion in the state.


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Tennessee currently prohibits abortion after the 20th week of pregnancy, and requires a woman wait 48 hours before receiving an abortion. Americans United for Life ranked the state as the 18th-most friendly to life in their 2019 Life List.


In 2014, voters in the state approved a constitutional amendment to the state constitution that said "Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or the funding of an abortion."


This constitutional amendment was approved by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2018.

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