Tennessee attorney general opposes federal abortion services for veterans

Skrmetti joins 17 AGs in filing court brief

By: - January 19, 2023 6:00 am
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 24: People protest in response to the Dobbs v Jackson Women's Health Organization ruling in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on June 24, 2022 in Washington, DC. The Court's decision in Dobbs v Jackson Women's Health overturns the landmark 50-year-old Roe v Wade case and erases a federal right to an abortion. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, DC – JUNE 24: People protest in response to the Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on June 24, 2022 in Washington, DC. The Court’s decision in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health overturns the landmark 50-year-old Roe v Wade case and erases a federal right to an abortion. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti has joined a coalition of chief law officers in opposing an interim rule allowing taxpayer-funded abortions and abortion counseling for veterans and beneficiaries.

Skrmetti and 17 other attorneys general filed their amicus brief in the Western District of Texas in the case of Carter v. McDonough in support of the plaintiff, Stephanie Carter, a Veterans Administration nurse who opposes the new rule.

Newly-appointed Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti. (Photo: tn.gov)
Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti. (Photo: tn.gov)

Skrmetti’s action comes about six months after a state law took effect banning abortions in Tennessee in response to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. That ruling came in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization in Mississippi and returned decisions on abortion access to state legislatures.

“In Dobbs, the Supreme Court recognized that regulation of abortion is entrusted to the states,” Skrmetti said in a Wednesday statement. “Tennessee’s law reflects the will of the people as expressed through their elected representatives. We will not allow federal bureaucrats to undermine the General Assembly’s lawful authority.”

The amicus brief joined by Skrmetti states in part, “These [state] laws strike a balance among the competing interests and reflect the outcome of hard-fought democratic processes. Some amici have chosen to adopt tighter restrictions on abortion following Dobbs. Other states have maintained or embraced more permissive regimens. All states have provisions in their abortion laws to protect a woman’s life.”

Lawmakers could be on the verge, though, of changing the state’s abortion “trigger law,” which passed in 2019 with the understanding it would take effect if the high court overturned Roe v. Wade.

At least one senator has said he voted for the bill not thinking the 1973 court decision would be reversed.

And in the last two months, a handful of state senators have said they plan to sponsor legislation providing exceptions to the abortion law for cases of rape and incest and to remove the “affirmative defense” mechanism that requires physicians to defend themselves in court if they have to perform an abortion to save the life of a mother involved in a deadly pregnancy. 

House Minority Leader Karen Camper of Memphis argued during floor debate four years ago that the legislation would “criminalize” doctors. The Republican-controlled chambers voted overwhelmingly to pass the bill.

The Tennessee Medical Association is lobbying for a change in the law this year to clarify that doctors won’t be charged with a felony for saving a mother’s life.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton has also said he supports a move to make exceptions for rape and incest and to clarify the state’s law on preserving the life and health of the mother.

Now they are attacking the freedom of soldiers to access the care they need. This amicus brief is offensive to our veterans who have put their lives on the line for this country.

– Sen. London Lamar, D-Memphis

State Sen. London Lamar, who opposed the “trigger law” four years ago as a member of the House, pointed out that under Republican control, Tennessee has the nation’s “most extreme abortion restrictions.”

“Now they are attacking the freedom of soldiers to access the care they need,” said Lamar, a Memphis Democrat. “This amicus brief is offensive to our veterans who have put their lives on the line for this country. They should be able to make decisions about their own bodies without interference from state politicians.”

The attorneys general, however, argue in their filing that the federal rule is “deeply flawed” because the Veterans Administration doesn’t have the legal authority it claims.

“[The VA’s rule] reflects disregard for the democratic process, intrusion on areas of traditional state authority, and defiance of the Supreme Court’s recognition that the hard questions in this area have been ‘return[ed]’ to ‘legislative bodies,’” the brief states. “[T]he VA justifies the rule not because of the absence of state laws on the subject of abortion, but because of the department’s disapproval of them on policy grounds.”

The brief also contends that rather than respecting the Constitution and Supreme Court ruling, the Biden Administration is trying to “wrest control over abortion back from the people.”

Skremetti and a group of 14 attorneys general had warned the VA in November 2022 that it didn’t have the authority to adopt the new abortion rule, putting the department on notice it planned to take action if it “defied the law.”

Attorneys general from Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Ohio, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and West Virginia also signed on to the brief.



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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.

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