NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee’s ruling GOP House on Monday advanced legislation that would add a narrow exemption to the state’s stringent abortion ban, despite concerns raised by Democrats and medical experts that the bill doesn’t go far enough. away to protect doctors and pregnant patients.
The legislation has been drastically reworked from its original version that was introduced just last month after Tennessee’s influential anti-abortion advocacy group objected. Tennessee Right to Life warned it could face political retribution for voting on a bill that would allow doctors to provide abortions based on their “good faith judgment.”
Instead, legislation advanced Monday allows doctors to use “reasonable medical judgment” when determining that an abortion is necessary to prevent the death of a pregnant patient or to spare her from irreversible, severe impairment of an important bodily function. Some doctors argue that it is a stricter legal standard.
“This bill provides greater clarity and returns to normal court system practice — innocent until proven guilty,” said Republican Representative Esther Helton-Haynes, initiator of the bill. “It protects the life of the mother and the life of the child.”
The final vote split the Democratic caucus, with only two Republicans voting against.
Republicans voted against several Democratic amendments to add more protections for doctors and women, including one to make exceptions for pregnant victims of rape and incest, making criminal abortion a misdemeanor instead of a crime. Another would have made the rape and incest exception only for minors whose pregnancies are 22 weeks or less.
Democratic Representative Gloria Johnson said the approved bill creates a “dangerous relationship” in which the doctor’s risk decreases as the woman’s risk increases.
“How close to death must their patient be to avoid prosecution?” Johnson said. “It’s something I don’t think we should be asking women to test.”
The bill must now go to the Senate before it can be signed off the desk of Republican Gov. Bill Lee.
Currently, Tennessee has no explicit exemptions under the so-called “trigger law,” which was not allowed to go into effect until the US Supreme Court struck down the constitutional right to abortion. Instead the law includes an “affirmative defense” for physicians, meaning it is incumbent on the physician to prove that an abortion was medically necessary, rather than requiring the state to prove otherwise.
The latest bill moving through the Tennessee Statehouse removes the affirmative defense for physicians and adds in language that physicians can provide abortion services for ectopic pregnancies and miscarriages. However, it does not include the older version’s inclusion of “medically unnecessary pregnancies” and lethal fetal abnormalities as approved reasons for doctors to provide an abortion. Instead, it allows doctors to use “reasonable medical judgment” to determine whether an abortion is necessary.
There is no exception for rape and incest.
The governor, Senate Speaker Randy McNally and other top GOP leaders have long defended Tennessee’s abortion ban, arguing they believe women are still protected by the law and that no doctors have faced felony charges since he joined in effect. However, a growing group of Republican lawmakers have begun advocating for an explicit exemption. Yet that effort inside the Republican-controlled Statehouse has met resistance as lawmakers remain skeptical of softening one of the strictest abortion bans in the United States.
Nationwide, attempts to ease strict abortion bans in Republican-led states have surfaced in Arkansas, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and West Virginia, according to the research team. of the Guttmacher Institute which supports the right to abortion. Many of the bills are supported by Democratic lawmakers, but a handful are pushed by Republicans.