Abortion bill giving father right to prevent abortion advances in Tennessee Legislature

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Legislation has been introduced to Tennessee’s House and Senate that would allow a father to request an injunction to prohibit a woman who is pregnant with his unborn child from obtaining an abortion.

Senate Bill 494 has already passed second consideration and House Bill 1079 has passed first consideration. 

The bills have made progress but not without opposition.

Opponents to the bills argue they’re unconstitutional if they do become law. 

There’s a lot for judges to consider including whose rights are superior – the mother, the unborn, or the father’s – and whether the bills fall under a domestic issue or a state issue. 

Senate Bill 494 and House Bill 1079 states that “A person may petition a court with jurisdiction over domestic relations matters to request an injunction to prohibit a woman who is pregnant with the person’s unborn child from obtaining an abortion.”

“This is not going back to what the states saying, this is going back to what a father is saying,” Rep. Mark Pody (R-Lebanon) said, the bill’s Senate sponsor. 

Fancie Hunt, the executive director for Tennessee Advocates for Planned Parenthood states that, “We believe that nobody should have the power to make health care decisions for someone else, not a judge, not a partner.”

Gov. Bill Lee has staked out his position on abortion. 

“You already know that I am strongly pro-life, and I will continue to defend this position,” Lee said in his 2021 State of the State address.

Posy said he stands behind the governor.

“I believe life starts at conception, and I believe both the mother and father were equally involved in bringing this life to being, and we believe that they both have a say of keeping that baby alive.”

Hunt and other abortion-rights advocates disagree, saying only one person should make that decision.

“A pregnant person must have the ultimate control over their body, and their pregnancy and this unconstitutional, insulting, and dangerous bill is terrible,” Hunt said. “So, we’re working to make sure people understand.”

Under the legislation, the court would issue an injunction if the person who filed the petition proves they are the biological father and there is a reasonable probability the mother will seek an abortion. 

“A lot of it’s going to boil down to when does life actually begin and when does somebody have the constitutional authority of that life to be protected,” explained Pody.

If the bill becomes law, violating the court order would mean the court could hold the mother in contempt. 

“If one of your partners has more power of the state behind them, it’s dangerous in that regard,” Hunt said. “The real-life impact is probably going to be a lot of people who are pregnant are not going to tell their partners.”

The question is whether or not this bill is constitutional. 

The bill is almost certainly unconstitutional because the court has actually struck down laws that are less restrictive over the past thirty years on a women’s right to get an abortion,” Lincoln Memorial University constitutional law professor Stewart Harris said.

A woman has a constitutional right to an abortion before the point of viability. 

“The consent provision of the Tennessee statute looks like it will place an undo burden on a women’s right to get an abortion by requiring a third-party consent,” Harris explained.

Under the legislation, the father would not be required to provide DNA evidence as proof. 

Professor Harris said, “that’s a remarkable omission because in theory any man can show up and claim to be the father.”

Regarding rape, the bill states that “Notwithstanding this section to the contrary, a person who executes a voluntary acknowledgment of paternity for the purpose of seeking an injunction pursuant to § 36-2-101 shall not rescind or challenge the voluntary acknowledgment of paternity under any circumstances, including on basis of fraud, duress, or material mistake of fact.” 

“Duress” defined refers to a situation whereby a person performs an act as a result of violence, threat, or other pressure against the person.

Harris said, “If there is no exception for rape then it’s 100 percent unconstitutional. If a woman has to get the consent of a rapist this places an unimaginable burden.”

Weather permitting, the bill will be heard in House and Senate committees next week with several more votes before it could go to Gov. Lee’s desk. 

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