By Chas Sisk | The Tennessean
The state House of Representatives approved a bill allowing homicide and assault prosecutions for the death of embryos in the earliest stages of development, in a vote tinged by the decades-long fight over abortion.
House lawmakers voted 80-18 for a measure that would extend criminal punishments for killing a fetus to the first eight weeks of pregnancy.
Supporters said the bill would clarify a law passed last year that made it easier to prosecute people for harming fetuses.
Opponents said charges of harming an embryo will be difficult to prove because many pregnancies end naturally at that stage. They suggested the measure really is meant to set up future battles over abortion.
Tennessee law has long allowed prosecutors to bring two charges when a person kills or assaults a pregnant woman. A charge of harming a fetus can be brought only as a second charge to harming the pregnant woman as well.
State law limited prosecutions to harming a "viable fetus," defined as somewhere around the 32nd week after conception until last year, when the law was amended to apply to any fetus. But one of that law's sponsors, Republican Rep. Joshua Evans of Greenbrier, said backers did not realize then that humans are not typically referred to as fetuses until the eighth week of development. Before that stage, they are usually known as embryos.
House Bill 3517 would extend the law specifically to embryos "at any state of gestation in utero."
"We're talking about clarifying. We're not talking about changing the law," Evans said.
During a floor debate that lasted about half an hour, Evans noted repeatedly that last year's bill passed both chambers unanimously. The measure cleared the House 80-0 and the Senate 26-0 on the final day of the legislative session.
Linked to abortion
But opponents said the bill would make major changes to state law.
According to the National Institutes of Health, roughly half of all fertilized eggs die before reaching full term, with the rate highest during the embryonic stage. As a result, it will be difficult for prosecutors to prove that an embryo miscarried because of someone else's action and not from natural causes, predicted Rep. Jeanne Richardson, D-Memphis.
"It is nature's way, God's way, of protecting our species," she said. "I think your original bill may have been OK and we voted for that. I think extending that would be iffy."
Opponents gradually linked the measure to the abortion debate.
Rep. Johnnie Turner, D-Memphis, said the measure would give "veiled support" to the anti-abortion movement by establishing that embryos can be crime victims. Once that principle had been accepted, embryos could be recognized as persons under other aspects of the law.
"It is not the same bill" as last year's, she said. "It passed unanimously last year under different circumstances, different terminology."
Despite those objections, only 18 lawmakers, all Democrats, voted against the measure. The bill comes up for a vote this morning in the Senate, having been passed out of that chamber's Judiciary Committee last week.
Contact Chas Sisk at 615-259-8283, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @chassisk.