Mar 22, 2023 - News

Consensus emerges on Tennessee abortion exception

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Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Tennessee lawmakers are coalescing around a narrow exception to Tennessee's strict abortion ban.

  • The measure would allow abortions in order to prevent the patient's death or if there is "serious risk of substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function."

The latest: The full House approved the bill by a wide margin Monday and the influential Senate Judiciary Committee approved it Tuesday.

Why it matters: Tennessee's existing "trigger ban," which took effect in August, does not include any exceptions and instead created a path for health care providers to present an "affirmative defense" in court, which means the burden would be on them to prove a life-saving abortion was necessary.

  • Republicans have been at odds over revisiting the ban, but Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti told lawmakers adding an exception could help to defend the law against legal challenges.

Catch up quick: House Speaker Cameron Sexton said he was also open to exceptions in cases of rape or incest. Polling shows those measures are widely supported in Tennessee, but they faltered in the General Assembly.

  • The version of the legislation that has succeeded is very narrowly tailored to remove the affirmative defense portion of the ban and replace it with an exception for life-threatening situations.
  • Tennessee Right to Life, an influential anti-abortion group that pushed the state's existing ban, initially resisted any changes. But it approved of the current legislation after it was amended.

State of play: Physicians have loudly advocated for an exception that allowed them to care for patients facing dire medical complications.

  • The amended bill allows providers to use "reasonable medical judgment" to determine if a life-saving abortion is necessary. The bill also specifies that doctors are allowed to "terminate an ectopic or molar pregnancy."

What they're saying: House sponsor Rep. Esther Helton-Haynes (R-East Ridge) said the bill as amended ensured "doctors could protect the lives of mothers and the babies."

  • Democratic Rep. Gloria Johnson pushed back, saying it didn't go far enough to protect patients and doctors and still forced them to weigh "murky" legal wording while making urgent health care decisions.
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