“The bill, as it currently stands, is so restrictive,” Rep. Yusuf Hakeem (D-Chattanooga) said.
But that could potentially change in the new year.
“The affirmative defense clause would be eliminated,” Hakeem said. “It would also, in regards to rape and incest, make exceptions in that area.”
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That affirmative defense clause makes it so doctors who perform a medical termination in life-saving situations are tasked with defending themselves from a felony, rather than a district attorney prosecuting them.
“What that means is that you’re guilty until proven innocent, which is contrary to what we normally use in the judiciary system,” Sen. Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville) said.
Briggs, a Knoxville physician, is a lifelong Republican and a self-identified pro-life politician. “I have voted a Republican ticket now for 50 years,” he said, laughing. “You can figure out how old I am.”
He’s breaking from many Tennessee Republicans and signaling support to clarify the current abortion law in two ways—one to protect doctors who save a woman’s life and the other regarding cases of rape and incest.
“I have seen two cases of 11-year-olds, one through rape, one through incest,” Briggs said. “I don’t believe that little child should be forced to carry a pregnancy with the risk of her never being able to have a child or a family of her own.”
Given the Republican supermajority in both chambers, Hakeem’s bill might be the only way Democrats can clarify the law. “I do think there is a chance for this to pass because it’s not asking that the entire legislation be changed or minimized,” Hakeem said.
Democrats aside, Briggs said there is a small, growing base of Republicans who support some sort of clarification on the law—which begs the question: Would it be enough to make some changes?
“The quick answer to that is I don’t know,” Briggs said. “But I do know that even among Republican constituents – and these are, in general at least in my district, very conservative people – there are concerns that the bill has gone too far.”
It’s a stark contrast from many of his colleagues, who News 2 has chronicled before.
Briggs said it’s difficult being a right-to-life person while also being in support of some clarification on the law. “The mother, the pregnant woman, deserves the right to life also—the right to life is not just for the unborn.”
In the whole debate, many of the lawmakers making decisions are men. Hakeem said the conversation needs to see the people most impacted—women, particularly pregnant women—of all social and economic classes brought in.
“Without a doubt, there needs to be more voices of females in the legislature,” Hakeem said. “The voices, the rights of women are not being viewed from their perspective, but from that of males that have a certain perspective of what they want to put forward.”
Of the 132 legislators currently in Tennessee’s General Assembly, 19 are women.