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New Tennessee bill would allow rapists’ families, friends to sue if victims have an abortion

The bill would ban abortion outright, with no exception for rape and incest, and allow a rapist's family to sue people who help his victim get abortion care.

A Tennessee bill would allow a rapist's family members, friends, spouse, or neighbors to sue people who help or provide his victim with an abortion.

This week, a state House of Representatives health subcommittee passed HB 2779 — an anti-abortion bill modeled after the Texas 6-week abortion ban, which deputizes citizens and empowers them to sue anyone suspected of helping, referring, or providing abortion care after pulsating fetal cardiac cells (what anti-abortion legislators refer to as a heartbeat) are detected.

"HB 2779 creates a barrier between me and the patients I care for because we can’t talk about all of their evidence-based options for their pregnancy," Dr. Leilah Zahedi-Spung, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist practicing in Tennessee, told TODAY Parents. "Since I care for high-risk pregnancies this is imperative to what I do on a daily basis."

The next step for the Tennessee bill is a full committee hearing, scheduled for later this month.

Unlike the Texas ban, HB 2779 would ban abortion entirely, without a 6-week window and without any exception for rape or incest. "This is my bill," Republican state Representative Rebecca Alexander said while discussing HB 2779 in committee. She said the bill would allow people to sue anyone who helps someone obtain an abortion, "regardless of any standing they have in the case." Citizens would be allowed to sue in civil court, and any suit would come with a minimum fine of $10,000.

Related: What moms who provide abortion care think about their jobs

During the hearing, Democratic state Representative Bob Freeman asked Alexander if the bill would allow family members, friends, spouses, and neighbors of rapists to sue victims if they obtain an abortion.

“My assumption is that they could, other than the rapist,” replied Alexander.

TODAY reached out Alexander for comment, but did not hear back at the time of publication.

"This bill, while it's being framed as an anti-abortion bill, is really not doing anything to further restrict abortion," Freeman told TODAY in a phone interview after the hearing. "It's really just going to bring all sorts of lawsuits and force people to have to potentially answer questions about a miscarriage."

In 2019, 5,796 sexual assaults were reported to Tennessee law enforcement agencies, according to the Tennessee Department of Health. Children ages 14-17 had the highest rate of sexual assault victimization.

"My wife is the president of the sexual assault center here in Nashville," Freeman shared. "And the stories that she has shared with me — young 13-year-olds that have become impregnated by a person of power or a family member — I mean rape, incest ... And we're essentially saying, 'Tough luck, honey. We know what's best for you." That, to me, is just appalling."

A legislative attorney familiar with the bill clarified in the hearing that under HB 2779, victims could not be sued — just anyone who aided them in accessing abortion care. The attorney, Rejul Bejoy, also noted that the bill would “allow investigators to ask people who lose a pregnancy how it was lost.”

At least 10-20% of all pregnancies end in miscarriage, according to the Mayo Clinic. That number is thought to be much higher, as many miscarriages occur early in pregnancy, before someone even knows they're pregnant.

Related: FDA to permanently allow abortion pills by mail, a major win for advocates

During the hearing, Alexander said, “My intent is to bring a bill that protects the unborn life in this state."

Tennessee has one of the worst infant mortality rates in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And studies have shown that when people are denied access to abortion care, they're at a higher risk of developing health problems, are more likely to stay in contact with a violent partner, and more likely to live in poverty.

A recent University of Texas study on the Texas 6-week abortion ban shows that banning abortion does not eradicate abortion entirely. While the number of abortions obtained in Texas has declined, the study from the University of Texas at Austin found that the number of Texans traveling out of state in order to receive abortion care increased — nearly 1,400 each month.

Texans have also turned to medication abortion — two oral medications that stop a pregnancy from progressing and help the body expel the pregnancy. For the first time ever, medication abortion surpassed surgical abortion care and now accounts for more than half of all abortions in the United States.

Freeman said he doesn't know if the bill will pass the full health committee, or eventually make its way to the governor's desk.

"It never ceases to amaze me, the bills that pass," he explained. "I'm not sure how it will fare in the full committee. But let me say this: If it passes through the Senate and the House, the governor will sign it into law. Guaranteed."

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, has not commented publicly on the specific bill. TODAY called his office, where an employee put a reporter on hold, and then the call was disconnected. A subsequent call was transferred to voicemail, where TODAY left a message seeking comment. As of publication, the governor's office has not returned the message.

Tennessee legislators are not the first to introduce Texas-style bills with the hope of eradicating abortion care. Recently, Idaho passed a similar law, banning abortion after 6 weeks gestation.

"(HB 2779) puts what’s best for the patient against the will of other people," Leilah Zahedi-Spung said. "No one deserves to have health care taken away from them, especially when they’re facing complicated life experiences."