On Thursday, February 13, 2020, Tennessee’s Republican governor Bill Lee delivered his State of the State address for West Tennessee at Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee. While his address focused primarily on economic development and promotion of better benefits for teachers, it was easy to catch a brief mention of a subject that has been of high controversy in Tennessee recently: the anti-abortion “Heartbeat Bill.”
“I’ve proposed legislation that would defend and protect the life of an unborn baby from the time their heartbeat can be detected,” Gov. Lee stated directly after discussing an extension of TennCare for new mothers. Lee then went on to tell the story of how his granddaughter being born extremely premature strengthened his resolve on the subject. Lee ended his brief mention of the bill saying that “Every life is precious, and we will support pro-life policy in this state because everything precious is worth protecting.” Lee’s heartbeat bill would ban abortion in the state of Tennessee after a fetal heartbeat is detected and would require testing for a fetal heartbeat before an abortion could be performed. A fetal heartbeat is normally detected around six weeks into gestation, about two weeks after a woman’s missed menstrual cycle. Due to this, it would be likely that most women would not even know that they are pregnant before the option of abortion was taken away.
Although Lee’s discussion of the heartbeat bill was extremely short, the reaction was astounding. Polite applause was present for many of the subjects of his address, but it was deafening for this anti-abortion stance. Being that Tennessee is an overwhelmingly Republican state, this is not very surprising.
However, although the heartbeat bill seemed to be widely supported by the audience at this particular event, it has sparked severe controversy and debate across Tennessee. Although Democrats are in the minority in Tennessee, they are making themselves heard. Outrage has sparked on social media over the bill, claiming that it is a backwards step for women’s rights and reproductive health. Some Republicans are also opposed to the bill, as they think that even this bill is too lenient and want abortion banned completely in Tennessee. Because of this, members of the House in a health committee discussed an abortion ban trigger bill which would outlaw abortion completely with intentions for it to be challenged before the Supreme Court. The ultimate goal of this trigger bill is to be able to argue against abortion before the Supreme Court and then overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade. Randy McNally, who presides over the Tennessee Senate, wants this trigger bill to pass as he believes that the heartbeat bill will put Tennessee on the losing side of a court battle and help maintain Roe v. Wade. The heartbeat bill has been in limbo in Tennessee’s Congress for a couple of years, but it was recently passed in the House and is still awaiting approval from the Senate.
Listening to different conversations around me after the concluding remarks of Governor Lee’s address, I was surprised at what I heard. Although Lee’s anti-abortion stance was only a brief snippet of his address, many of the conversations taking place were about the heartbeat bill. It was easy to conclude that many in attendance of the bill were Republicans, so they were within a group of like-minded people. As Sunstein concludes, this can lead to intense polarization. Although I did not notice the groups becoming more radical in their opinions as a result of these discussions, it is possible that these discussions between like-minded people had an effect.
The effect could easily be that the individuals within each group were more solidified in their opinions after having conversations with like-minded people, and more confident that their opinion is the only “right” opinion. An authority figure backing up their opinions likely also solidified their opinions. The same would be apparent if this address was made by a Democratic governor with a left-leaning audience. Although abortion seems to be an issue that is hard to sway opinions on in any way, an individual being around others who share their exact thinking is likely to promote solidarity between them and make them more close-minded on the subject.
This can prove to be detrimental to democracy in Tennessee. With Republican officials and citizens being very solidified in their opinion on abortion, it is hard for opposing arguments to ever be heard. Modern democracy is supposed to succumb to the will of the people while still upholding minority rights, but polarization can make this difficult. If the trigger bill passes in the House, it is likely that even further polarization will occur, making it near impossible to reach a middle ground regarding abortion in Tennessee.
Ultimately, the heartbeat bill is likely to pass in Tennessee as it is a Republican state. When this happens, it is almost guaranteed that the bill will be challenged before higher courts. Regardless, the heartbeat bill will continue to promote controversy and polarization in the meantime.