Apr 6, 2023 - News

Narrow abortion exception bill heads to Tennessee governor

Illustration of a hurdle with a gavel as the hurdle board.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The long and winding effort to add an exception to Tennessee's strict abortion ban cleared one of its final hurdles Wednesday.

  • The measure, which allows providers to perform abortions to save a patient's life, passed in the Senate 26-1. It already cleared the House.

The latest: Gov. Bill Lee's spokesperson tells Axios he intends to sign the exception bill into law.

Why it matters: Tennessee's ban, which took effect in August, has led to confusion and fear for doctors across the state, who were suddenly unsure if they could perform routine, life-saving procedures for their pregnant patients.

  • Under the current law, providers who perform an abortion can be charged with a felony. Rather than carving out exceptions, the law lays out a path for an "affirmative defense" against charges in court, which requires doctors to prove they performed an abortion to avoid death or serious harm.
  • Many providers have worried about risking legal jeopardy.

Driving the news: The new bill would remove the affirmative defense and replace it with a narrow exception in order to save a patient's life or prevent a "serious risk of substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function."

  • The bill allows providers to use "reasonable medical judgment" to determine if a life-saving abortion is necessary. It also specifies that doctors are allowed to terminate ectopic pregnancies.
  • Lee spokesperson Jade Byers says the administration "was happy to work with the General Assembly to provide even greater clarity in Tennessee law to protect mothers and children."

State of play: The influential anti-abortion group Tennessee Right to Life initially opposed any changes, but switched to supporting this bill last month after it was amended. That led to broad Republican approval.

  • Democratic lawmakers say the legal bar remains too high because doctors will still need to weigh legal risks before making urgent medical decisions.
  • Attorney David Raybin told NewsChannel 5 providers will still need to spend significant time determining and documenting what other doctors deem a "reasonable" treatment to guard against a criminal charge.

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