Women who receive a surgical abortion in Tennessee will be required to bury or cremate their fetal remains under a bill that passed the Tennessee legislature Wednesday morning.
The legislation, which passed the House 69-22 Monday and the Senate 27-6 on Wednesday, will head to Gov. Bill Lee for his signature.
Lee, a conservative Republican, has touted his anti-abortion stance since his election. He signed into law one of the nation’s most restrictive abortion laws last year, although much of the law remains contested in court.
The burial and cremation bill is one of many abortion-related proposals this year. The bill advanced quickly in the legislature compared to other abortion-related measures, which gathered little interest from Republican leaders.
Proponents for the legislation say the bill protects the dignity for each unborn child.
“This legislation strives to extend the same protection, the same respect and dignity to a deceased surgically-aborted child,” Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, the bill’s sponsor, said from the Senate floor Wednesday.
But the initiative triggered opposition from reproductive rights advocates, who have argued the intent is to burden abortion clinics financially and shame women for their decisions. Scores of protesters stood outside the state Capitol on Monday afternoon, urging lawmakers to vote against the measure.
“This bill was never about dignity,” Anna Flores of Planned Parenthood’s Tennessee chapter said during the protest. “They want to chip away at our rights little by little, hoping we don’t notice until suddenly, our bodily autonomy is gone completely.”
“This lays bare that this is a targeted regulation of abortion providers and intended to shame patients,” Francie Hunt, executive director of Tennessee Advocates for Planned Parenthood, said in a Wednesday statement. “We have real health issues in Tennessee, and if politicians don’t want to be part of the solution, they should get out of our way.”
The bill comes at a time when the state government is already fighting lawsuits over abortion in federal court. But the issue will likely survive a legal fight if challenged in court, since the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a similar Indiana law in 2019.
Clinics, women would bear the cost of fetal remains disposal
Under the bill, women who seek surgical abortions would be required to bury or cremate their fetal remains themselves or leave the decision to the abortion clinics.
The clinics would be required to shoulder the cost. But the women would bear the expense instead if they choose to dispose the fetal remains other than where the clinics suggests.
Rep. Tim Rudd, R-Murfreesboro, who sponsored the bill in the House, said Monday night some funeral homes would not charge for fetal burial services. The average cost for burial is $350, and for cremation, $150, he said.
If the women cannot afford the cost, Rudd said there are “charities out there that are set up to help with the burial expenses.”
The women must fill out a written form provided by the state Department of Health detailing the method and location for the fetal remains disposal for every aborted fetus. Underage women a seeking surgical abortion would have to obtain consent from one parent before disposing of the fetal remains.
The bill has been amended to exclude hospitals after lobbying from the Tennessee Hospital Association, which told lawmakers hospitals already maintain similar policies, Rudd previously said during a House subcommittee hearing.
Abortion clinics providing fetal remains to law enforcement officers for investigative purposes would not be violating the law, as long as they dispose of the remains after the investigation, according to the bill language.
GOP supermajority pushes legislation through despite protest from reproductive rights advocates
The primary clash between proponents and protesters of the bill has been whether the fetal remains count as a human life or medical tissue.
Among more than 20 staff members with Planned Parenthood gathering outside the state Capitol Monday afternoon, Flores said she believes the bill “is an attempt to close abortion providers’ doors and shame people out of getting the medical care they need.”
Hunt of the advocates for Planned Parenthood led the protesters in chanting: “Our bodies! Our lives! Our right to decide!”
Rep. London Lamar, D-Memphis, who lost her child during a full-term pregnancy in 2019, called the legislation “offensive.”
“This is one of the most offensive pieces of legislation I’ve heard this year,” she said. “Offensive, for women who’ve actually had to bury their children.”
Lamar said the bill does not govern women who have experienced miscarriages. It also does not carve out exceptions for rape or incest.
“Why are we taking the most traumatic parts of a pregnancy and then pass a legislative action around them in the name of pro-life?” she asked.
Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, said Wednesday the bill does not address molar pregnancy, a rare situation where an egg is abnormally fertilized, according to the Mayo Clinic. She further argued the bill poses a “big government overreach” into medical decisions.
“This is another example of why the legislature shouldn’t probably be in the business of regulating complicated medical issues,” she said. “Big government overreach into our personal lives creates more problems than it solves.”
In their arguments, Republican lawmakers said the fetuses are a human life deserving dignity. Some have cited graphic testimony from former abortion clinic workers.
The workers belong to the group And Then There Were None, a Texas-based nonprofit urging workers to leave the abortion industry. The group is led by anti-abortion activist Abby Johnson, whose self-described experience has been cast in doubt by multiple media reports.
Sen. Kerry Roberts, R-Springfield, on Wednesday cited graphic details from the committee testimony and said abortion workers have to “piece together a human child to make sure that no bits and pieces were left behind in the mother.”
Rudd said Monday the legislation is not “forcing women to do anything.” He said the fetal remains are currently “thrown in the trash or flushed down the toilet.”
“This legislation does not in any shape of form restrict abortion or have anything to do with abortion,” he said. “We have in code today that pets, farm animals … are treated with more dignity.”
Reach Yue Stella Yu at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @bystellayu_tnsn.
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