Abortion bill amendments don’t stop Tennessee Right to Life opposition

By: - February 23, 2023 6:04 am
Dr. Tracy Coffee of Clarksville, Tenn. regularly provides emergency care to pregnant women. Her job is now complicated by Tennessee's abortion ban. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Dr. Tracy Coffee of Clarksville, Tenn. regularly provides emergency care to pregnant women. Her job is now complicated by Tennessee’s abortion ban. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Tennessee Right to Life continues to oppose legislation that would stop the “criminalization” of doctors who perform abortions to save the life of a woman despite a number of proposed changes to the bill.

An amendment negotiated with Tennessee Right to Life makes numerous changes, but the House Health Committee failed to consider the measure Wednesday after hearing the Department of Health’s budget plan and running out of time.

Physicians packed the committee room to weigh in on the legislation after finding out new language is to be considered.

“We’ve talked to a criminal defense attorney who has enlightened us, and it’s horrible,” said Dr. Katrina Green. “The amendment would not be any better than what we have, which is horrible.”

A bill to give physicians the ability to use professional judgment when caring for pregnant mothers with life-threatening conditions has been derailed by Tennessee Right to Life. New language could increase legal exposures for doctors instead of easing it.

Physicians want the committee to drop the amendment and let them practice “good-faith judgment” and treat patients the way they are trained, Green said, using “ethical, evidence-based medicine and compassionate healthcare.” 

Among the changes, all references to “good-faith” judgment on the part of physicians would be changed to “reasonable,” which could increase legal exposure to medical providers who might be charged with a felony for performing an abortion to save the woman or prevent a debilitating illness.

The initial version of the bill also adopted the standard of “medical emergency” to determine when abortions could be performed to save the mother’s life in dangerous pregnancies. But the new version deletes that language.

Proposed changes also make it unclear whether a pregnant woman diagnosed with cancer would be allowed to end the pregnancy to receive chemotherapy.

State Rep. John Ray Clemmons said Wednesday Republican lawmakers who negotiated the proposed amendment were trying to “appease” Tennessee Right to Life.

“The latest filed amendment fails to provide the protections we would like to see for healthcare providers and women. … It’s weaker language than the original bill,” he said.

Democrats are going to work to return to the original version, he said.

Republicans refused to talk Wednesday after the meeting.

During a contentious meeting last week, House Speaker Cameron Sexton scolded Right to Life counsel Will Brewer for making a public threat to score lawmakers negatively if they voted for the legislation that wound up passing. Brewer did not respond to a phone call Wednesday.

After Tennessee Right to Life sent emails urging supporters to contact legislators, some lawmakers say they’ve received hundreds — if not thousands — of emails.

Tennessee Right to Life has been sending out form letters to members to put pressure on lawmakers in light of their effort to change the state’s abortion prohibition and allow doctors to save women’s lives in risky pregnancies without the threat of being arrested and forced to defend themselves in court.

Some lawmakers say they’ve received hundreds, if not thousands, of emails from Tennessee Right to Life supporters as a result.

Yet the anti-abortion group said Wednesday it continued to oppose House Bill 883 because it couldn’t support efforts to “whittle away” at the state’s abortion “protections.”

“The discussions of the past week have shown that even with slightly improved definitions, this legislation is unacceptable to the pro-life position. It cannot be reformatted into a sound bill that continues to effectively protect unborn children in our state,” Tennessee Right to Life said in a statement.

The organization contends the Human Life Protection Act passed in 2019 “protects the right to life of all unborn children in our state with a provision for those situations when the mother’s life is in danger.” The group says the bill as amended does more than “clarify” language in the current law. 

Tennessee Right to Life claims an estimated 900 unborn children have been saved each month from abortion and that no doctor has been charged with a crime for saving a woman’s life.

Some legislators have said they didn’t understand the “affirmative defense” provision of the bill, which requires doctors to defend themselves in court after being charged with a felony. Others simply ignored warnings four years ago that the anti-abortion bill would “criminalize” physicians and voted to enact the “trigger” bill, which took effect last August after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

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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 and Best Single Feature from the Tennessee Press Association.