NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) — A bill to add exemptions to Tennessee’s abortion ban cleared a House committee on Wednesday.
The legislation would add exemptions for ectopic or molar pregnancies and abortions that, in a doctor’s “reasonable medical judgment,” are necessary to prevent serious injury or death of the mother.
Under current law, a doctor who performs an abortion commits a Class C felony, which is punishable by 3–15 years in prison. The law offers no explicit exceptions, only an “affirmative defense to prosecution” for abortions to prevent the death of or serious injury to the mother.
That means a doctor who performs an abortion to save a mother’s life could still be prosecuted.
Doctors and the Tennessee Medical Association have asked lawmakers to change the affirmative defense part of the law.
“I was passionate about making sure that affirmative defense was removed from the legislation and that was my number one goal,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Esther Helton-Haynes (R-East Ridge), said. “And when I have spoke with physicians, that has been their number one priority, is to remove the affirmative defense.”
The anti-abortion group Tennessee Right to Life supports the current legislation after opposing a previous version of the bill.
Rep. John Ray Clemmons (D-Nashville) said he was concerned the bill was weakened too much to appease Tennessee Right to Life and that it would still leave doctors in legal jeopardy.
A previous version of the bill would have exempted abortions to prevent a medical emergency. That’s not in the latest version, and Clemmons said that means doctors will have to wait “until the very last minute.”
“I would not ever want my doctor, or my wife’s doctor, or any woman in this state in the position of having their health care provider sitting there waiting and concerned more about criminal prosecution than their life and their health,” Clemmons said. “And that’s what we’re leaving here with this amendment.”
Clemmons asked Helton-Hayens if she was comfortable with the current language of the bill.
“I am comfortable knowing that this language will pass and it will save mothers’ lives by removing the affirmative defense,” Helton-Haynes said. “I have a daughter I have four granddaughters, and I believe removing the affirmative defense will protect them.”
The House Health Committee approved the amended bill, which will head to the full House next. The Senate version is scheduled to go before the Judiciary Committee next week.