Gov. Bill Lee signs law carving out narrow exceptions to Tennessee abortion ban

By: - April 28, 2023 3:26 pm
Dr. Amy Gordon Bono speaking at a Aug. 24 press conference about Tennessee's abortion ban. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Dr. Amy Gordon Bono speaking at a August 24 press conference about Tennessee’s abortion ban. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Eight months after Tennessee enacted one of the strictest abortion bans in the nation, Gov. Bill Lee on Friday quietly signed a law providing narrow exceptions.

The new law, which went into effect immediately, allows physicians to perform abortions in limited medical emergencies: molar or ectopic pregnancies, to remove a miscarriage, to save the life of the mother and “prevent serious risk of substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman.”

The law it supersedes made performing any abortion a felony, subjecting doctors to arrest. Physicians faced with prosecution could provide an “affirmative defense” that they had performed the abortion to spare the life, or grievous harm, to the pregnant person.  The new law allows doctors to exercise “reasonable medical judgment, based upon the facts known to the physician at the time.”

Tennessee’s so-called trigger law banning abortion went into effect Aug. 25, 2022 within weeks of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that found there is no right to an abortion under the U.S. Constitution, throwing decisions about abortion to states.

Today’s signing changes nothing, and being pregnant in Tennessee is still far deadlier than it should ever be. . . The only way to restore reproductive freedoms -- before things get worse -- are consequences at the ballot box for anti-aboriton extremists.

– Ashley Coffield, CEO, Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi

Since its passage, every free-standing abortion clinic in Tennessee has closed or ceased providing abortion services. In two instances, Tennessee clinic operators moved their abortion operations across state lines. Doctor residency programs stopped offering abortion training. Doctors have spoken out about the chilling effect of the law on providing patient care, including routine miscarriage treatment and options for patients carrying pregnancies with fetal anomalies. Some doctors opted to leave Tennessee.

The new law still contains no exceptions for fetal anomalies or for victims of rape or incest.

“Today’s signing changes nothing, and being pregnant in Tennessee is still far deadlier than it should ever be,” said Ashley Coffield, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi. “The debate at the legislature this year over how to save very few lives while appeasing extremists got us nowhere. The only way to restore reproductive freedoms — before things get even worse — are consequences at the ballot box for anti-abortion extremists.”

The law was passed over the objections of Tennessee Right to Life, the anti-abortion group that served as the key advocate for the trigger ban. The group threatened to call out lawmakers who supported the new legislation. Faced with pressure from the anti-abortion group, GOP lawmakers backed down from some of the original bill’s components, which would have also carved out exceptions for fetal anomalies, including medically futile pregnancies, and allowed doctors to provide abortions based on “good faith judgment” — a lower bar than the current “reasonable medical judgement” that is now law.

The new law has also reintroduced reporting requirements for any abortion performed in Tennessee, requiring the Tennessee Department of Health to be notified.

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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee.