(WJHL) – Under new Tennessee law, an expectation of death or self-harm due to mental health does not allow a licensed physician to perform an abortion to save a mother’s life, according to an attorney and law professor.
Tennessee Code Annotated § 39-15-213, otherwise known as Tennessee’s abortion “trigger law,” outlines the circumstances necessary to allow a physician to terminate a pregnancy in the state. You can find the law’s text by clicking the link below:
In all but select circumstances, physicians in the state are barred from performing abortions under the penalty of Class C felony charges, which can result in 3 to 15 years in prison upon conviction, according to state sentencing guidelines.
If a physician is charged with criminal abortion under Tennessee’s law, one viable defense listed in the law involves the threat of physical harm or death to the mother. In section (c)(2), the law states that the procedure is allowed if “the abortion was necessary to prevent the death of the pregnant woman or to prevent serious risk of substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman.”
In the event that the risk of harm comes from the mother herself, however, a pregnancy must be carried to term. In the same subsection, the law states that physicians are still barred from performing an abortion on the “basis of a claim or a diagnosis that the woman will engage in conduct that would result in her death or substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function or for any reason relating to her mental health.”
For comparison, Virginia Code states that a third-trimester abortion is legal if physicians believe that forcing the birth would “substantially and irremediably impair the mental or physical health of the woman.”
Christopher Young, an adjunct professor and career counselor at the Appalachian School of Law and a practicing attorney in Washington D.C., told News Channel 11 that as he understands it, the law prevents a woman from using her mental health as an affirmative defense.
Young told News Channel 11 that he interpreted the wording of the law as meaning that regardless of a diagnosis or a belief that a woman would commit self-harm, a Tennessee physician could not perform an abortion.
News Channel 11 reached out to the office of Tennessee Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III for clarification of the law, but his office declined to comment. Gov. Bill Lee’s office also did not comment.