House physician “affirmative defense” delayed after abortion bills fall in Senate

By: - March 1, 2023 3:41 pm
The Tennessee Senate Chambers. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The Tennessee Senate Chambers. (Photo: John Partipilo)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been updated.

A piece of legislation designed to stop the “criminalization” of doctors could be in trouble after several abortion-related bills went down in flames this week.

State Rep. Esther Helton-Haynes delayed a bill Wednesday for three weeks that would remove the “affirmative defense” requirement for doctors who provide abortions for women going through deadly pregnancies.

Helton-Haynes, an East Ridge Republican, said she believes she has enough votes to pass the bill out of the House Health Committee but that she wants to wait until the Senate Judiciary Committee takes it up. The House could pass its own version of the bill this session and allow the Senate to take up the matter again next year if it fails to progress there.

Rep. Esther Helton Haynes, R-East Ridge. (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Rep. Esther Helton Haynes, R-East Ridge. (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

The decision to postpone House Bill 883 comes a day after Sen. Richard Briggs, sponsor of Senate Bill 745, delayed consideration of his bill in the Judiciary Committee in an effort to line up more votes. Briggs wants colleagues to get advice from Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti who, he said, told him it would be easier to defend his bill in court than the state’s “trigger” law, which bans abortions.

Lawmakers still haven’t tried to place an amendment on the bill that would change wording such as the “good-faith judgment” of physicians to “reasonable” judgment, which critics say 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.

Pushing any bill that appears to soften the state’s anti-abortion law through the Senate Judiciary Committee will be a tough task.

The Republican-dominated panel killed legislation Tuesday by Democratic Sen. Raumesk Akbari that would ensure birth control and contraceptives are not included in the state’s abortion law and another bill Democratic Sen. London Lamar that would renew abortion rights in the state. Tennessee’s “trigger” law took effect banning abortions in August 2022 after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

“This bill is about giving women the opportunity to choose their own life,” said Lamar of Memphis. She urged Republicans to vote for it in spite of threats by Tennessee Right to Life to negatively score lawmakers who voted for the legislation in a House subcommittee.

Both measures failed 7-2, but the committee voted in favor of legislation by Republican Sen. Joey Hensley, of Hohenwald, that prohibits city and county governments from assisting with abortions, such as paying for women to travel to other states for the procedure.

Lamar insisted that hospitals that receive county funding could lose that financial help for providing an abortion for an ectopic pregnancy. But Hensley responded that the bill simply stops local governments from paying for women’s out-of-state abortions.

Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin, also removed his own bill from consideration in the committee after he saw it didn’t have enough support to pass. It would have created exceptions for rape and incest in the state’s anti-abortion law.

Democrats expressed frustration Wednesday that Republicans, who hold a supermajority in the legislature, could not move what they consider the “bare minimum” of legislation to roll back the abortion law.

“Two groups are put in dire circumstances without this bill, that is doctors and women, and we are losing, even before all of this plays out, doctors here in the state of Tennessee,” said state Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga. 

Lamar, who lost a child at birth, called the Republican supermajority’s refusal to change the abortion law an “abomination.” She contends they are “lacking courage” because of the threats of Tennessee Right to Life, even though polls show 60% of Tennesseans support abortion rights.

Meanwhile, the state’s foster care system will be flooded with children as it struggles to care for those in its custody, she pointed out.

Gov. Bill Lee put $100 million in his budget plan for crisis pregnancy centers, one of which he supports by serving on its board. Lamar called those facilities for forcing women to give birth.

“I hope they have a funeral fund for all the women that’s going to be dropping over dead because doctors can’t save the lives of women in this state because they failed to at least do good public policy,” Lamar said.

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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.