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Will Legislators Take a Consistent Approach to Abortion and Marriage?

Three bills filed in the General Assembly—two on abortion and one on marriage—point out how hard it is to find a consistent principle by which to govern. Here’s what I think needs to be done.

Two Approaches to Reversing Roe v. Wade

The two abortion bills would make it a crime for a physician to perform an abortion except in limited circumstances. All the legislative sponsors of the two bills want to see Roe v. Wade and its progeny overturned and authority of abortion matters returned to the states.

One bill is called the fetal heartbeat bill because it would make the criminal sanction and the limited exceptions thereto applicable once a child’s heartbeat is detected. The other bill would make the sanction applicable only after the U.S. Supreme Court “overrules, in whole or in part, Roe v. Wade” and its progeny, “thereby restoring to the states their authority to prohibit abortion.”

The fetal heartbeat bill seeks to push for a reversal of Roe by imposing a limit on abortion greater than any the U.S. Supreme Court has had to rule on in the past. The hope is that the new law will provoke a lawsuit that will, in time, wind its way to the U.S. Supreme Court and arrive at a time when the Court is willing to reverse Roe.

The second bill, known as a “trigger law,” imposes a limit on abortion only if the law of some other state is challenged and the decision, in that case, results in Roe being reversed.

There have been times when I thought the second approach was the only plausible approach. The Court was decidedly more liberal than it is today, the popular culture was not as pro-life as it today, and legislative bodies were not applauding infanticide legislation that outrages the sensibilities of an overwhelming majority.

If you think public sentiment can’t influence justices, then pretend you didn’t ever hear Justice Ginsburg say she thought America was now ready for same-sex “marriage.”

Pushing the Envelope on Roe

While the “trigger law” should be passed, these changes in the court and public sentiment have led me to think it’s also time to push the envelope and precipitate a situation that will require the U.S. Supreme Court to re-evaluate the constitutionally unsupportable rationale employed 40 years ago to support the decision in Roe.

Of course, the Supreme Court may continue to uphold the right to abortion, but it is very unlikely the Court will go in the direction of making it harder for states to enact abortion laws. The standard by which the constitutionality of abortion laws are now judged—Does the law unduly burden abortion?—is as low as it can go without the Court reducing the standard to the lowest possible standard—Does the law have a rational basis?

So, at this point, I don’t see much to lose other than simply losing. But not to try is a de facto loss anyway.

But notice this: Neither abortion bill seeks to “nullify” the Supreme Court’s rulings on abortions or tells prosecutors to ignore those rulings and prosecute abortionists anyway. Legislators know they can’t just ignore a bad decision by the United States Supreme Court.

Moreover, the fetal heartbeat bill is a testament to the fact that legislators know they must come up with some approach to abortion that has not been tested and ruled on yet in order to get a case back to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Legislators know that a bill treating Roe as a nullity would be slapped down as unenforceable by a federal district court and the decision upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit faster than Gov. Bill Lee can say to the state’s Treasurer, “Please pay the Planned Parenthood’s legal fees for having to sue our state.”

If legislators really believed they could nullify and ignore a U.S. Supreme Court opinion, surely legislators in our state would have done so any number of times between the 1973 Roe decision and now.

How This Applies to Marriage

But the reasons that lead legislators to look for ways to work around Roe and not just ignore it apply with equal force to the new bill on marriage.

That bill says, “No state or local agency or official shall give force or effect to any court order that has the effect of violating Tennessee’s laws protecting natural marriage.” Thus, it’s a bill purporting to “nullify” the U.S. Supreme Court’s constitutionally unsupportable decision on marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges, and it just won’t fly.

That’s not to say that nothing can be done about Obergefell. But the same principled approach to it must be taken as is being taken with the fetal heartbeat bill. I’ve been working on that principled approach and that work is almost done. Stay tuned.


David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.

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2 replies
  1. Brian Hale
    Brian Hale says:

    I still believe, regardless of Obergefell, that the state must abide by it’s own Constitution, that no new nullification law is needed, since even SCOTUS has no power to nulliy state constitutions, and that the governor has no legal choice to do anything but throw up his hands and follow the law as written by due process. We keep looking for a monkey wrench throw into the works when it is already there. Our founding fathers would not take this judicial tyranny — Roe or Obergefell — lying down, and neither should we.

  2. Robert Roark
    Robert Roark says:

    I don’t remember the circumstances of the details, but I remember some case in which the losing party challenged a court to enforce its ruling. What would happen if a state refused to carry out a court decision at some level? What kind of misery could be imposed? I agree this is not the best case scenario, but the courts are so far out of line with the Constitution that there must be some alternative. I look forward to your principled approach re Obergefell

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