Abortion Hearing Ends With High Tensions And Complaints About Lack Of Diversity In Witness List

Aug 14, 2019
Originally published on August 13, 2019 7:51 pm

A two-day hearing on a bill that would essentially ban all abortions in Tennessee ended with high tensions and complaints about a lack of diversity in the witness list.

Out of 21 people who talked about the measure, only one was an African American woman.

Pro-abortion rights activist Cherisse Scott said the bill would have the biggest impact on marginalized communities — including black and brown people, and white people in rural areas.

But Scott’s testimony was cut off when she reached her allotted time, the only person who wasn't allowed to run over. Scott refused to cede the mic, so committee members declared a recess, formally suspending the hearing.

Nonetheless, Scott continued even as some lawmakers left the dais.

"You want to make sure abortions are decreased? Then it's your responsibility to work with me," Scott said while the committee was in recess. "Me. A black woman. A black woman who doesn't want to see other black women die. Another black woman who doesn't want to see people fall down the stairs, drinking bleach, trying not to die."

The only other African American witness was conservative commentator and former U.S. ambassador Alan Keyes, who supports the bill.

Scott's protest wasn't the only tensions. A handful of abortion rights advocates, as well as anti-abortion activists, were removed from the hearing room for clapping or just putting their hands on the air. 

Out of everyone in the two days who testified on the bill, only nine were women. Heather Shumaker, an attorney with the National Women's Law Center, was the first female witness to testify.

"I will be remiss if I don't point out that I'm the first person to testify in this summer study — after eight speakers — who has the capacity to become pregnant," Shumaker said.

Seeking new ideas

The Senate hosted the summer study session to examine alternatives to the so-called "heartbeat bill," a proposal to ban all abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected. That's typically around six week. Several legal scholars — including opponents of abortion — have called that idea unconstitutional. 

Much of the discussion centered on a proposal that seeks to redefine the legal definition of "viability" to include any stage of fetal development after conception. Backers say it could open a new challenge to Roe v. Wade and subsequent rulings that focus on viability.

But medically, viability has been clearly defined as the ability of a fetus to live outside the womb. A leading anti-abortion group, Right to Life, says trying to change that meaning is little more than a clever legal argument.

More: Anti-Abortion Activists Split On Whether To Pursue A Complete Ban

Sen. Mike Bell, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee and the one who sent the bill to summer session, told reporters he had yet to be convinced to support the measure.

"I haven't really heard anything new, but I think you heard strong arguments from both sides," Bell said. "I have not had all my questions answered, I can tell you that positively."

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