Tennessee bill to create narrow exceptions to state’s near-total abortion ban clears committee

Staff Photo by Andy Sher / Rep. Esther Helton-Hayes, R-East Ridge, presents her bill creating narrow exceptions to Tennessee’s near-total abortion ban during the House Health Committee’s meeting March 6. The bill moved through committee and is scheduled to be heard Thursday in the House Calendar and Rules Committee.

NASHVILLE — A compromise between state House Republican leaders and abortion foes to provide narrow exceptions to Tennessee's near-total ban on abortions moved though a major legislative committee Wednesday.

But Democrats and some physicians voiced concerns the amended bill doesn't do enough to protect women.

House Bill 883, carried by Rep. Esther Helton-Haynes, R-East Ridge, was approved on a voice vote after an hour of discussion, debate and sometimes pointed words.

Helton-Haynes has had the active backing of House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville.

State law makes all abortions illegal, a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison for any physician upon conviction. The law has a provision allowing physicians, if charged, to mount an "affirmative defense" and argue the abortion was necessary to save the life of the mother in an effort to avoid charges. Physicians have been concerned that leaves them in significant legal jeopardy.

The law went into effect in August after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the 1973 landmark decision Roe v. Wade, which said a woman had a right to obtain an abortion.

"I believe removing the affirmative defense will protect women," Helton-Haynes, a nurse by training, told committee members.

She said in response to questions that she felt the woman's life would be covered if she were in danger because of a lethal fetal anomaly.

Rep. Bo Mitchell, D-Nashville, asked whether an abortion would be allowed under the amendment.

"Yes," Helton-Haynes replied, "to save the life of the mother or to prevent any substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function."

Helton-Haynes' bill would allow doctors to perform an abortion in cases involving ectopic and molar pregnancies without having to defend themselves against charges. An ectopic pregnancy is when a fertilized egg attaches outside the womb and is nonviable. Molar pregnancies, which are rare, involve unusual growths of cells called trophoblasts. The placenta can become cancerous.

Mitchell asked what would happen in a case in which a 15-year-old child was in foster care and raped.

"Would your amendment allow for an abortion?" Mitchell asked.

"If her life was in danger, yes, if her life was in jeopardy," Helton-Haynes replied.

Mitchell said he opposed the bill because there was no specific exception for rape or incest.

"We should not have a draconian law that harms women," he said.

The Republican-led Senate has yet to act on the measure.

Legislative leaders recently said Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti has told them tweaks in Tennessee's law would put him in a better position to defend it in court.

Following the committee's action, Amy Gordon Bono, a primary care/internal medicine physician who practices in Middle Tennessee, indicated she had mixed feelings about the legislation, with it falling short in her view in some areas.

"I think it's an important step that we're taking, but I don't know if it's wise to import Texas problems to Tennessee," she told the Chattanooga Times Free Press as the committee adjourned following its action. "A lot of what we are now moving forward with, we've seen play out in Texas over the last year and a half with a lot of patients being harmed.

"I'm very appreciative that we would no longer have an affirmative defense provision, that is a sincere victory. I do have great concerns that this does not represent a true judicial cleanup."

She noted that a "heartbeat" law also enacted by lawmakers several years ago remains in Tennessee code and indicated concerns about the interaction of that with the Helton-Hayes' legislation.

That law makes it illegal in Tennessee to abort an unborn child who has a heartbeat. The law is intended to protect unborn children at 6 weeks gestational age who have a heartbeat. It also prevents an abortion in cases in which the child is at 8 weeks of gestational age or older.

A Vanderbilt University poll released in December found of 75% of poll respondents saying they think abortion should be legal in Tennessee if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. That transcends partisanship, the pollster said, noting 62% of Republicans, 78% of independents and 93% of Democrats agreed.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com.