New Tennessee Law Makes Harming Embryos A Criminal Act


The Tennessee state Senate passed a bill on Monday that would expand existing “fetal harm” law to cover embryos as well as fetuses. Apparently the standing statue specifically makes causing harm to a fetus a prosecutable act but someone brought it to the attention of legislators that “fetus” isn’t an all-encompassing term for a nascent human in-utero and there was a pre-fetal stage of development knows as “embryo” that happens from conception to the 8th week of pregnancy. Thusly educated about the specifics of pregnancy (why didn’t they know that already, by the way?), they took it into their hands to expand the law going forward.

As always with laws like this, proponents claim it’s a measure to protect women and allow them avenues for action should they be assaulted during pregnancy and have harm come to the embryo or fetus. There is, in fact, language in the bill that exempts consensual “medical or surgical” procedure from the definition of harm so theoretically this law should not affect abortion access in the state.

When I heard this news, the pro-choice activist in me rolled her eyes almost audibly because I tend to view laws like this as a steady creep toward criminalizing abortion without also addressing the underlying causes of abortion, namely poverty, lack of education, and lack of access to gynecological and contraceptive health care that all lead to unwanted pregnancies. I also get angry that legislators are willing to legislate up the yin-yang to protect embryos and fetuses but they don’t seem to be rushing to strengthen abuse or assault protection for women. I mean, I know the Tennessee Senate isn’t the gang that’s squabbling about reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act at the Federal level but c’mon. Why is violence against women less actionable than violence against the unborn? Hmmmmm?

On the upside, maybe this law will prove to be a watershed for another public health issue. Tennessee doesn’t currently have comprehensive statewide smoke-free workplace protections. Perhaps the threat of harm from second-hand smoke to fetuses and embryos will make those lawmakers more eager to take action about clearing up the air in workplaces around the state. We can hope, right?

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