Tennessee House passes bill with two narrow abortion exceptions

One is for the life of the mother, another for ectopic pregnancies

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.

NASHVILLE -- The Tennessee House voted Monday to create two narrow exceptions to the state's near-total abortion ban law, sending the measure over to the state Senate.

House Bill 883, sponsored by Rep. Esther Helton-Haynes, R-East Ridge, was approved 83-11 in the Republican-dominated chamber.

"This bill provides better clarity and returns to normal judicial practice -- innocent until proven guilty," Helton-Haynes said. "It protects the mother's life and the life of the baby."

Helton-Haynes said she was determined to remove the "affirmative defense" mechanism in the current law, which allowed doctors to defend themselves if charged with the crime of abortion but was not an exception to the abortion ban.

Under the current law, if charged with the crime of abortion, doctors have to prove the procedure was necessary to save the life of the mother -- but the burden of proof is on them, not on prosecutors.

The ban passed in 2019 and took effect last year after the current U.S. Supreme Court overturned its landmark 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade.

Some Democrats said Helton-Haynes' bill creating an exception does not go far enough and that major changes made to overcome opposition from Tennessee Right to Life were too much for them to accept.

Democrats were divided over the measure.

"I'm glad that I get to speak on the floor with a body who some members don't know if my life is really important enough to save. So thank you for that," Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, told the chamber, who revealed last week she had to have an abortion decades ago because of a serious heart issue that put her life at risk.

"Doctors are still at risk in this legislation. And women are at risk," Johnson said. "You are putting women and young girls at risk. Think about the women in your families, and do the right thing here."

Tennessee's current law makes all abortions illegal, a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison for any physician upon conviction.

Helton-Haynes' bill, which had the support of House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, adds two exceptions to the ban, one for ectopic or molar pregnancies and the other for abortions that, in a doctor's "reasonable medical judgment" are necessary to prevent serious injury or death of the mother.

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.

Rep. Sabi Kumar, a Springfield Republican and physician, thanked Helton-Haynes for sponsoring the legislation, noting it's a divisive issue.

"There is no middle ground, but something had to be done, again, to protect the lives of the mothers and the baby," Kumar said, later noting, "There has been a tremendous burden on the medical community. ... They were under threat of prosecution, financial ruin."

Tennessee Right to Life agreed to the two exceptions.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-285-9480.