The Senate approved and sent to Gov. Bill Haslam on Monday legislation that allows criminal prosecution for causing the death of “a human embryo of fetus at any stage of gestation in utero.”
The bill (HB3517) marks the second change in two years to a law that since 1989 had it a crime to cause the death of a “viable fetus.” That was changed last year to eliminate the word “viable.”
Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mount Juliet, the sponsor, said legislators have since learned that, under the scientific definition of a fetus, the term only applies when eight weeks are more has passed since conception. Adding “embryo” covers from the moment of conception.
The bill passed the Senate 30-2. The House has approved 80-18 last week.
All votes against the bill came from Democrats, some of whom contended in floor debate that “embryo” is too broad.
Sen. Beverly Marrero, D-Memphis, told Beavers the measure would be construed to require a pregnancy test for “every woman who is shot.”
“No, Sen. Marrero, I don’t see it that way at all,” replied Beavers.
“All we are trying to is punish that person for two counts of homicide or two counts of assault on that woman who has chosen to have her child,” Beavers said.
In the House, Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, the law could now could lead to a business owner who allows smoking being charged when an employee miscarries because of second-hand smoke or charges against a motorist who causes a careless minor accident that resulting a miscarriage.
“It seems to go too far,” Stewart said. “What’s the limiting factor?”
Rep. Joshua Evans, R-Greenbrier, the House sponsor, said district attorneys general would not bring charges “if the proof wasn’t there” of an intent to cause harm to the embryo or fetus.
Evans also said the bill merely clarifies current law, which is necessary because women are sometimes attacked because of a their pregnancy.
“There is a problem with people being killed because they’re pregnant, or being assaulted,” he said.
Rep. Jeannie Richardson, D-Memphis, said that about 50 percent of all conceptions “miscarry naturally” before the embryo reaches eight weeks and the new law is vague enough to allow prosecutions in such cases.
Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, said Democrats were “playing the ‘what if’ game” he knows of no unwarranted “horrible instances” of prosecution in other states with similar laws covering embryos.
“This deals with criminal behavior, by people who have harmed not one but two Tennesseans,” Hill said.
Rep. Johnnie Turner, D-Memphis, said the bill would give “veiled support” to the anti-abortion movement.
Evans said that is not the case. He noted the measure explicitly excludes any harm to an embryo or fetus cause by the pregnant woman herself.
The bill includes language declaring it does not apply “to any act or omission by a pregnant woman with respect to an embryo or fetus with which she is pregnant or to any lawful medical or surgical procedure to which a pregnant woman consents, performed by a health care professional.”
The Senate was scheduled to also vote Monday on a House-passed bill that declares any physician performing an abortion in Tennessee must have hospital admission privileges in the county where the procedure is performed or an adjoining county. It wound up being postponed until today when the Senate stopped work early Monday night to allow the Finance Committee to work on the state budget bill, the main measure remaining before the end of the 2012 legislative session.