Lawmakers find themselves in cross-hairs of anti-abortion groups
Tennessee Right to Life held a press conference on June 24 after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Lawmakers including Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka (by Tennessee flag, partially obscured,) Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, in navy jacket and khaki pants, and left of podium, House Majority Leader Williams Lamberth, R-Portland. (Photo: John Partipilo)
State lawmakers are defending themselves against attacks from anti-abortion groups accusing them of trying to derail Tennessee’s new restrictions.
Tennessee Right to Life and Tennessee Stands are targeting members of the Population Health Subcommittee, mainly Republicans, and urging people to call and email them after they approved legislation designed to change the “affirmative defense” provision in state law in an effort to stop the “criminalization” of physicians who save the lives of women involved in deadly pregnancies.
Under current law, a doctor could be charged with a felony and forced to prove in court that an abortion was necessary to save a woman’s life. The law prohibiting abortions in Tennessee, without clear protection for physicians and exceptions for rape and incest, took effect in August 2022 after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
The subcommittee voted in favor of the bill last week after House Speaker Cameron Sexton joined the fray and criticized Right to Life counsel Will Brewer for threatening negative scores against legislators who supported the bill.
“Saving the mother’s life isn’t an elective abortion – it is an emergency.”
– Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville
State Rep. Andrew Farmer, a Sevierville Republican who supported the legislation, said Monday he can accept scoring by lobbying groups. Nevertheless, Farmer said he is “very disappointed” in Tennessee Right to Life.
“I never expected them to stoop to the level of misinformation. It’s like the next thing I know I’m going to see Will Brewer standing beside (President) Joe Biden arguing the country’s in the best shape it’s ever been in,” Farmer said. “They’re just saying anything they can say to make us look bad, and that’s just not professional.”
Tennessee Right to Life sent form letters to its members late last week saying House Bill 883 is being presented as a “clarification” with an exception to save the life of the mother, including treatment for ectopic pregnancies and miscarriages, but that it will almost completely rewrite the law.
“While well-intentioned, in reality this bill, if enacted, would offer cover for those who abort children in our state and would delete large sections of pro-life measures in Tennessee code,” the mailer says.
Sexton, a Crossville Republican, pointed out the “trigger” law makes saving the life of the mother a Class C felony that requires the physician to prove their innocence, “meaning they are automatically considered guilty.” The Tennessee Medical Association supports the legislation.
The Speaker also noted the current law is “silent” on “lethal fetal anomalies,” which aren’t genetic anomalies or birth defects, including situations in which a fetus is diagnosed with anencephaly, a type of neural tube defect in which an unborn child lacks parts of the brain and skull.
“Saving the mother’s life isn’t an elective abortion – it is an emergency,” Sexton said Monday. “If the intent of the ‘trigger’ bill is to not save the life of the mother, then no clarification is needed. I believe it was the intent of the bill, and therefore, it needs clarification.”
The Right to Life mailer also contends the legislation would allow portions of “pro-life laws” to be removed, enable physicians to “abort children if they believe there is a ‘lethal fetal anomaly’ or if they think a baby has a condition that is ‘incompatible with life,’” require physicians accused of an illegal abortion to explain their actions to a state medical board, and allow physicians “to end the life of a baby if they claim it is to prevent or treat a medical emergency.”
“So a baby could be aborted to prevent a condition that may never happen,” the mailer says.
In addition, Gary Humble, leader of the advocacy group Tennessee Stands, sent out a video link saying, “What kind of Republicans vote for legislation to weaken abortion laws in Tennessee?” One of his messages points out Farmer voted for the bill.
Brewer told the subcommittee last week his group doesn’t consider the bill a piece of “pro-life” legislation and said it would allow “quasi-elective” abortions. Farmer, in contrast, argued that it is designed to save women and babies by allowing physicians to make life-saving decisions.
Only one member of the subcommittee, Rep. Bryan Terry, R-Murfreesboro, voted against the bill. It is to be heard Wednesday by the Health Committee, which he chairs.
Rep. Caleb Hemmer, a Nashville Democrat who voted for the legislation last week, said he welcomes groups and advocates to express their concerns but believes those sending out these messages are “misguided” about the bill.
“It actually helps clarify a lot of things in the law and has been carefully negotiated with legislative leaders, physician and hospital groups, advocates, as well as the Attorney General’s Office,” Hemmer said.
Despite Tennessee Right to Life’s stance, Hemmer said he is “comfortable” with the legislation’s language, including “protections for physicians to do their jobs and fulfill their Hippocratic Oath and protect the lives of mothers and babies.”
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