Abortion bill to save life of mother clears first hurdle amid rancor over political threat
Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton told a lawyer for Tennessee Right to Life:”To intimidate this committee to go a certain direction is uncalled for.” (Photo: John Partipilo)
Despite a threat of negative pro-life scoring, a House subcommittee overwhelmingly passed legislation Tuesday enabling doctors to perform abortions in life-threatening situations without facing prosecution.
The House Population Health Subcommittee approved HB883 and sent it to the full Health Committee for consideration as House Speaker Cameron Sexton stepped in to blast Tennessee Right to Life counsel Will Brewer after he told members they would be scored negatively if they voted in favor of the legislation.
Sexton said he didn’t join the subcommittee because he thought the vote was going to be close but because Brewer tried to “intimidate” members.
“You can have those conversations in your room. You can have those conversations in email. But to do it in committee to try to intimidate this committee to go a certain direction is uncalled for,” Sexton said.
Brewer had given the subcommittee mixed signals, saying Tennessee Right to Life supports leaving the state’s abortion ban alone but that he could agree to some changes that would enable physicians to make objective decisions in saving the life of women suffering from dangerous pregnancies.
Yet, he also said the bill is not considered “pro-life” and that Tennessee Right to Life PAC would be giving a negative score to those who support it.
Rep. Esther Helton-Haynes, R-East Ridge, the bill’s sponsor, told the committee she considers the legislation a “truly pro-life bill.”
“These moms want their babies. They’re not looking for an abortion,” she said. “Something goes terribly wrong in their pregnancy, and I feel physicians shouldn’t have to hesitate when they know what needs to be done to take care of these mothers.”
The Legislature passed the “trigger” bill in 2019, enabling it to take effect if the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, setting up one of the strictest abortion laws in the nation. It was effective in August 2022, and almost immediately lawmakers started reversing course on the ban, saying an “affirmative defense” provision in the law endangered doctors professionally and put them in the position of being charged with a felony for performing an abortion in an effort to save women suffering through dangerous pregnancies. Under the law, physicians have to prove in court they took action to prevent a woman from dying or suffering from a debilitating illness.
The Tennessee Medical Association supported the legislation Tuesday because it requires proof to be shown that a physician performed an illegal abortion before the doctor can be prosecuted.
“Once a physician is charged with a crime, that physician is subject to immediate penalties such as loss of hospital privileges, being kicked out of health insurance networks, losing jobs, having their face splayed across the hometown newspaper,” said Yarnell Beatty, attorney for the Tennessee Medical Association.
Brewer, however, contended that doctors shouldn’t be able to make their own decisions about ending pregnancies without going through a series of steps, including sending women home in hopes that problem pregnancies would “work themselves out.” His statement brought near jeers from the audience in the meeting room.
And some lawmakers told him even though they respect his organization they couldn’t believe he would want to put women’s lives at risk to save a doomed pregnancy.
“These moms want their babies. They’re not looking for an abortion. Something goes terribly wrong in their pregnancy, and I feel physicians shouldn’t have to hesitate when they know what needs to be done to take care of these mothers.
– Rep. Esther Helton-Haynes, R-East Ridge
State Rep. Andrew Farmer challenged Brewer’s opposition to the bill, pointing out that it doesn’t allow for “elective abortions.”
In a back-and-forth with Farmer, Brewer argued that it allows for “quasi-elective” abortions that don’t have to be done immediately but can be performed to prevent “future” medical emergencies.
Farmer countered that the bill contains no language dealing with “quasi-elective abortions.”
And though Brewer said he was talking about the “effect” of the bill, Farmer pointed out he was discussing the “black and white on the paper” and noted, “It does not provide for elective abortions. Let’s just make that clear.”
Farmer argued that the legislation is designed to save the life of the mother and the baby, if it has the opportunity to become a child.
Lawmakers have touched on ectopic pregnancies as one instance in which women can die because a fertilized egg moves outside the womb into the Fallopian tubes.
It’s beneath the dignity of this committee, and it’s an offense to my colleagues in here to have a witness come before this committee and assert political campaign threats during testimony. That’s completely disrespectful of this committee.
– Rep. John Ray Clemmons, speaking to Tennessee Right to Life Counsel Will Brewer
Debate touched on the lack of scientific terms for fatal fetal anomalies in the legislation. But Dr. Kim Fortner told the committee there are too many types of dangerous pregnancies to list in the bill and that trying to pinpoint every one could lead to exclusion of a medical problem.
Questioned by state Rep. John Ray Clemmons about whether similar abortion bans in other states have been blocked because they conflict with federal law, Brewer initially said he didn’t know of any. But when Clemmons asked if he knew about a case in Idaho, Brewer said, “I am familiar with that now that you say so.”
Clemmons also criticized Brewer for threatening negative scores for legislators in the subcommittee meeting.
“It’s beneath the dignity of this committee, and it’s an offense to my colleagues in here to have a witness come before this committee and assert political campaign threats during testimony. That’s completely disrespectful of this committee,” Clemmons said before he was gaveled down by the subcommittee chairwoman.
The Senate version of the bill has not been scheduled to be heard by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
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