NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It will now be up to Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee to decide whether some medical providers will be required to cremate or bury fetal remains from surgical abortions under legislation that the Republican-supermajority Senate passed along party lines Wednesday.
The debate follows passage of similar laws in other Republican-majority states, with reproductive rights advocates arguing such measures are not needed and stigmatize a legally available procedure, and anti-abortion supporters contending that the requirement preserves human dignity without interfering with a woman’s abortion choice.
According to the bill, certain medical providers must dispose of fetal remains from surgical abortions by cremation or burial and cover the costs of the disposal. The measure states that the pregnant woman “has a right to determine” the method and location for the final disposal of the fetal remains if desired, but if she picks a different location she would have to shoulder some cost.
“This legislation strives to extend the same protections, respect and dignity to a deceased, surgically aborted child as granted to any other deceased human being,” said Republican Sen. Janice Bowling, the bill sponsor.
Bowling said the bill is specifically meant to apply to abortions and abortion clinics, saying hospitals were exempted because of processes they have in place. Democrats questioned why, if GOP lawmakers really wanted to ensure appropriate treatment of all fetal remains, the bill had such a narrow target, and didn’t apply more widely to other medical settings and situations.
“To have additional trauma related to being required to have this type of service is just cruel,” Senate Democratic Caucus Chairwoman Raumesh Akbari. “I wish that instead of that, we would conform to what hospitals are already doing.”
The proposal passed the House earlier this week, so it heads to the governor’s desk for his approval. The Republican hasn’t publicly weighed in on the bill, but he has repeatedly stressed his opposition to abortion. Last year, he signed one of the strictest abortion bans in the country but it was promptly blocked from being implemented because of a federal court challenge.
The language in the Tennessee proposal resembles an Indiana law that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2019. In an unsigned opinion, the justices said the case did not involve limits on abortion rights.
Indiana was among the first states to pass fetal-remains laws, in 2016, after anti-abortion activists released undercover video of Planned Parenthood officials discussing the transfer of fetal tissue. The videos sparked anger from conservatives across the country, but investigations cleared the group of wrongdoing.
Since then, at least 10 other states have enacted similar requirements, though legal challenges persist. Earlier this month, a judge temporarily blocked enforcement of Ohio’s fetal-remains disposal law after agreeing that a lack of rules made complying unworkable for clinics.