Tennessee Gov. Lee proposes $100 million for anti-abortion centers

Legislators applaud Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee as he delivers his State of the State Address in the House Chamber, Monday, Feb. 6, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn.
Legislators applaud Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee as he delivers his State of the State Address in the House Chamber, Monday, Feb. 6, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Brushing aside calls to tweak one of the strictest abortion bans in the United States, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Monday unveiled plans to funnel tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to anti-abortion centers as he declared the state had a “moral obligation” to support families.

Lee, a Republican, said he wants to create a $100 million grant program for nonprofits commonly known as “crisis pregnancy centers." If approved, Tennessee would become one of the top spending states on such organizations known for dissuading people from getting an abortion.

However, now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned, many Republicans have gone on the defensive about their abortion bans, including by offering to expand government programs aimed at women and families. Lee, for example, is focusing on pregnant mothers and parents on Medicaid and state employees who have newborns.

The crisis pregnancy centers Lee is banking on, meanwhile, have shifted to touting that they offer pre-natal prenatal and post-birth classes.

The governor made the announcement during his annual State of the State address in front of the Republican-dominated Legislature. The speech outlined his top priorities over the upcoming months, ranging from spending an additional $125 million on teacher pay raises, improving the state's transportation system and efforts to clean up toxic waste on industrial sites.

Yet, Lee dedicated a significant amount of time explaining how and why he would support families after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion. Lee has stood firm against inserting exceptions to Tennessee's abortion ban. But the issue has split even top-level Republicans, with House Speaker Cameron Sexton saying the law needs to change.

“Pro-life is much more than defending the lives of the unborn,” Lee said as protesters shouted above him about health care in the gallery. “This is not a matter of politics. This is about human dignity.”

Amid the shouts, Lee quipped “civility is not weakness,” in a nod to his inauguration speech from two weeks prior where he criticized those “who thrive on toxic incivility and divisiveness.” The line prompted the loudest standing ovation from Republican lawmakers, cabinet members and other leaders inside the Tennessee House chamber.

“We can have a healthy debate about the policy specifics, but we can also agree that America is rooted in a commitment to human dignity,” Lee later said. “There was a significant shift in this country last year when it comes to protecting the lives of the unborn. We now all have an opportunity and a moral obligation to support strong Tennessee families.”

Lee's comments sparked ire from Democratic lawmakers, who argued the governor was ignoring the concerns of women who no longer have access to abortion services in Tennessee.

“It’s embarrassing that Gov. Bill Lee made a smart (aleck) comment during the state of the state directed at women upset that they no longer are considered equal in this state,” Democratic Rep. Gloria Johnson said in a tweet. “Dissent is not incivility.”

Along with creating a $100 million grant fund for crisis pregnancy centers, Lee also proposed expanding paid parental leave for state employees and widening the Medicaid eligibility for pregnant women and parents. His administration also plans to ask the federal government to cover the cost of diapers for Medicaid recipients for two years.

“If approved, Tennessee will be the first Medicaid program in the nation to implement this kind of support. That’s pro-life. That’s pro-family,” Lee said.

The governor's speech did not include specific details about the paid parental leave proposal for state employee. Lee initially pitched a similar proposal in 2020, but eventually abandoned the idea after facing skepticism from Republican leaders as the coronavirus outbreak began to hit the state.

This year, Lee's second pitch at expanding paid family leave was met with some enthusiasm but his pitch for $100 million for crisis pregnancy centers received much more applause.

In 2021, Tennessee lawmakers allocated money for several ultrasound machines to be placed in pregnancy centers. The website of one center includes a disclaimer stating that any information provided “is an educational service and should not be relied on as a substitute for professional and/or medical advice.”

An Associated Press tally based on state budget figures reveals that nearly $89 million was allocated to such centers across about a dozen states during the 2021-2022 fiscal year. A decade ago, the annual funding for the programs hovered around $17 million in about eight states.

Lee is also on the advisory board for the Hope Clinic for Women, a crisis pregnancy center in Tennessee.