Opinion: An abortion ban isn’t all Tennessee’s far right wants

Tennessee has the country's strongest abortion ban, and the anti-abortion groups that helped write and pass the law that made it that way want to keep it that way.

In fact, those groups -- Tennessee Right to Life and Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America -- are so bent on defending the state's virtually total ban that they are still working our lawmakers, even the ones who voted for our strictest law and now wish they hadn't.

During an hour-long webinar on Oct. 27, representatives of the anti-abortion groups urged our legislators to hold the line and protect the state's so-called trigger ban passed to outlaw abortion if and when Roe was overturned -- which, of course, it now has been.

With Roe's fall, Tennessee's trigger ban took effect on Aug. 25. It contains no explicit exceptions and leaves any doctor who performs an abortion that he or she cannot prove was medically necessary to save the mother's life or prevent her major impairment facing a felony with penalties up to 15 years in prison and fines up to $10,000.

The webinar took place after recently re-elected state Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, began saying out loud what some other Tennessee lawmakers were saying privately -- both to us and others: That they voted for the law as a political statement. They voted for it thinking it would never actually go into effect because they thought Roe wouldn't fall. They did not think of it as a decision that would soon affect people's lives.

But that was wrong-headed. Votes always have consequences. And the lawmakers played with our lives for theater even when they knew how we felt about it: 80% of Tennesseans -- even 50% of us who told Vanderbilt pollsters last May that we were "pro-life" -- believe abortion should be either completely legal or legal under some conditions.

In campaigning, Briggs told voters he would like to see the law offer clear exceptions for rape, incest, severe fetal anomalies and cases where the pregnant patient's life or health are at risk -- not already failing.

Briggs, a heart surgeon and a retired U.S. Army colonel, won his election and said the same thing to ProPublica, which had reviewed a recording of the webinar and published a story about it on Tuesday.

But the webinar clearly shows something more, according to ProPublica and snippets of the webinar's audio that the news organization attached to its story.

One anti-abortion speaker provided lawmakers with new talking points, suggesting that if they are challenged about the state's lack of exceptions for rape and incest cases, they should try to "hide behind the skirts of women" who carried such pregnancies to term and believe abortion is wrong.

Another suggested that "negativity" toward the law would fade. And he raised the possibility of regulating contraception and in vitro fertilization in a few years' time.

Yes, you read that right. They're now suggesting lawmakers regulate contraception. Here's the exact quote:

"Maybe your caucus gets to a point next year, two years from now, three years from now, where you do want to talk about IVF [a fertility treatment that generally involves creating multiple embryos, some of which may ultimately be discarded], and how to regulate it in a more ethical way, or deal with some of those contraceptive issues. But I don't think that that's the conversation that you need to have now."

Another lawmaker told us last week that rape and incest should be exceptions, but that person fears what more might happen "if we ever open that door." At least women under the current law are not held liable for criminal charges, the lawmaker said.

A third lawmaker said physicians need more leeway and not to be treated as guilty until they prove themselves innocent. As for the future of contraception in Tennessee?

There are some members of the General Assembly who would try to ban it, too, that lawmaker said.

Both of those lawmakers did not want to be named.

To our south in Georgia, a judge on Tuesday overturned the Peach State's ban on abortion starting around six weeks into a pregnancy, ruling that it violated the U.S. Constitution and U.S. Supreme Court precedent when it was enacted and was therefore void. The state attorney general's office said it already has appealed the ruling.

Georgia's ban was signed into law in 2019 while the U.S. Supreme Court precedent allowed abortion past six weeks. Georgia's ban has been in effect since July -- about three weeks after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June.

Where does all this leave Tennessee? Time will tell. But given the lack of backbone in our General Assembly, challenging our ban in the courts one more time may be our best hope.