Support grows for abortion law changes to save life of the mother

Tennessee Right to Life backs bill to make “affirmative defense” for physicians an exception

By: - March 13, 2023 11:42 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)

Nashville resident Mathilde Stubblefield wanted to stay alive for her 2-year-old when she decided to end a dangerous pregnancy amid Tennessee’s restrictive abortion law.

Faced with death or a hysterectomy that would end her chances to have children, Stubblefield elected to end a Caesarean scar ectopic pregnancy that could have killed her.

“I never wanted to have to make the decision that I did, but choosing to terminate a life-threatening pregnancy is something that I needed to do and would really do again, because I want to watch my daughter grow up. That’s my only interest. Maybe second after that is preserving my ability to have children,” she says.

Stubblefield, whose husband is a physician, considers herself fortunate to have doctors who were “willing to put their licenses on the line” and help with the care she needed. Under state law, they could be charged with committing felony abortion, potentially lose their medical licenses and their malpractice insurance coverage, if a district attorney wanted to prosecute.

“I’m so grateful that I’m standing here today very healthy, hoping to have a child in the future,” the 34-year-old says.

34-year-old Mathilde Stubblefield of Nashville ended an ectopic pregnancy that could have killed her. “I never wanted to make the decision that I did. . . but I wanted to watch my  daughter grow up.

Stubblefield hoped to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee two weeks ago but was only able to submit written testimony.

At that point, legislation by Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, changing the “affirmative defense” requirement in Tennessee’s abortion law was postponed until this Tuesday. The House version of the bill sponsored by Rep. Esther Helton-Haynes was held up in the Health Committee after it made it out of a subcommittee despite opposition from Tennessee Right to Life.

But another measure sponsored by Helton-Haynes and Sen. Ken Yager, chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus, is receiving support from the anti-abortion group after having a proposed amendment attached to it.

Tennessee Right to Life released a statement Monday saying it supports Senate Bill 983 if amended. The measure would “explicitly clarify” that treatments for ectopic pregnancy and miscarriages are not considered criminal abortions under the Human Life Protection Act, “and it would change the affirmative defense to an exception for those times when the mother’s life is in danger,” the statement says.

The group contends the bill “helps doctors and patients without creating unnecessary exceptions or deleting large sections of pro-life laws” under the 2019 law, which was passed to outlaw abortions in advance of the Supreme Court reversing Roe v. Wade.

SB983 is on the calendar for Monday’s Senate Judiciary Committee to consider, but it could be postponed until Tuesday.

Stubblefield, meanwhile, believes it is important that doctors don’t have to defend themselves in court and face the loss of their medical practice for performing life-saving abortions, including spending thousands of dollars on litigation.

She’s also concerned about the rights of other women.

“I’m in a totally different position to be able to find the care that I might need. That’s not going to be the reality for the majority of women in the state of Tennessee,” she says.


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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.