Effort to amend Tennessee abortion law to make it easier for physicians to defend themselves stalls in House panel

Staff Photo by Andy Sher / Tennessee physicians and others packed the state House Health Committee room on Wednesday for an expected hearing on a bill seeking to ease the state’s law providing criminal penalties for a doctor who performs an abortion to save a pregnant woman’s life or prevent irreversible harm. The panel never got to the bill after first hearing a presentation and questioning newly named Health Commissioner Ralph Alvarado, pictured at left.

NASHVILLE — A Tennessee House effort to change the state's abortion ban to create an exception in cases where a physician deemed it necessary to prevent the death of a pregnant woman or prevent serious and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function was left in limbo Wednesday in committee.

House Health Committee members adjourned before taking up the planned new amendment to the bill sponsored by Rep. Esther Helton-Haynes, R-East Ridge, with the active support of House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville.

The new amendment seeks to change language that originally left the decision to perform an abortion to the "good faith judgment" of the physician. It would now require a physician's "reasonable medical judgment," a tougher standard involving other providers.

That left both physicians and Democrats objecting later.

The Republican-led panel spent most of its time Wednesday in a hearing with the state's new health commissioner, Ralph Alvarado. Following that, Health Committee Chairman Rep. Bryan Terry, R-Murfreesboro, declared the panel was out of time. The committee then adjourned with Helton-Haynes' House Bill 883 not acted on.

"We are not throwing in the towel," Helton-Haynes, a nurse by training, stated later in a text to the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "You know how these presentations go. They take forever. We just ran out of time."

Attention now turns to the upper chamber, where the bill has been calendered for consideration Tuesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, who was named to helm the panel earlier this year.

Asked whether the bill's fate could be decided there, Helton-Haynes said, "That's possible. I hope not."

Speaking later by phone, Gardenhire said he wants to see what the amendments say.

"We'll hear a good discussion," Gardenhire said. "I have to see what everybody's feeling is, give everybody an opportunity to make a presentation. I'm the chairman, I've got to give everybody equal time."

He declined to say whether he supported the bill until all the amendments are on it.

The law was passed in 2019 and set to take effect if the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Roe v. Wade decision, which protected a woman's right to an abortion, was ever overturned.

The current Supreme Court overturned the 1973 ruling in 2022, and Tennessee's law took effect as intended. Any physician, under the state law, could be charged with a felony carrying up to 15 years in prison.

The law allows a physician to mount a legal defense proving the procedure was necessary to save the life of the mother -- but the burden of proof is on the doctor, not the prosecutors.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker from Oak Ridge, opposes changes to the 2019 law but has said he won't pressure GOP senators to oppose the legislation.

Helton and Sexton's original effort was opposed by Tennessee Right to Life. An attorney and lobbyist for the group warned subcommittee members earlier this month that their vote would be scored in the group's political grading of legislators. It cleared the panel on a voice vote.

Earlier Wednesday, Tennessee Right to Life, which helped write the original 2019 law, said it continues to oppose HB 883 despite changes in the bill's language.

"We simply cannot support efforts to whittle away at our current protections," the statement said. "The discussions of the past week have shown that even with slightly improved definitions, this legislation is unacceptable to the pro-life position. It cannot be reformatted into a sound bill that continues to effectively protect unborn children in our state."

The statement goes to say, "The Human Life Protection Act that was passed by the General Assembly in 2019 is the preferred language. It protects the right to life of all unborn children in our state with a provision for those situations when the mother's life is in danger. Although Tennessee Right to Life has made it clear that we would not oppose efforts to simply clarify language in the current law, HB883 does much more than clarify."

House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Ray Clemmons of Nashville said following the meeting that the amendment weakened the bill.

"This filed amendment fails to provide the protections we would like to see for health care providers and women across the state of Tennessee," Clemmons said. "We're going to continue to evaluate it. We're going to work to get back to the original version. That's a big change. That makes a big difference in a courtroom if the health care was charged."

Two dozen or more physicians and health care providers were at the hearing, among them Dr. Amy Gordon Bono, a primary care/internal medicine physician from Nashville.

"It's hard to read through smoke and mirrors, but when it comes to the amendment that was filed -- it only saw sunshine yesterday," Bono said. "I really think that rolling this bill is a good idea to allow more time to educate doctors, to educate the public, on how dangerous this amendment could be."

She expressed concern about the change from good faith medical judgment to reasonable medical judgment.

"I'm a doctor, not a lawyer," Bono said. "I know there are criminal defense lawyers who are very concerned about the change from a subjective to an objective standard. As a doctor, whenever I'm seeing a patient, I can have two different patients, and that outcome is a different decision. Because I practice patient-centered care. Using my good faith medical judgment is imperative."

The Tennessee Medical Association and other physician groups support the Helton-Haynes bill. Among other instances, it would allow physicians to perform an abortion if there is an ectopic pregnancy in which a fertilized egg is outside the womb.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com.