NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Tennessee lawmakers kicked off the annual legislative session this week in Nashville.
Ahead of the 113th General Assembly, WKRN News 2’s Chris O’Brien sat down with leaders on both sides of the aisle to talk about all the issues and what they might look like in bill form.
Separate interviews were conducted with Senate Minority Leader Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis), Lt. Gov. Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville), House Majority Leader William Lamberth (R-Portland), Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) and Democratic House Caucus Chairman John Ray Clemmons (D-Nashville).
Not every interviewee was asked about every subject, but there was considerable crossover with most of them.
Tennessee’s abortion trigger law, which was passed in 2019 and went into effect after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, has no exceptions for abortions in the case of rape, incest or when a pregnancy threatens the life of the mother.
Instead, it gives doctors an affirmative defense at trial if they performed an abortion to save a life. Doctors and attorneys have said this part of the law puts doctors at risk of being charged with a Class C felony.
Below you’ll find what lawmakers said ahead of the session when asked about their thoughts on clarifying the abortion ban law.
Sexton: “There’s people who say the life of the mother is included, there’s people who say, ‘I don’t see that.’ So, let’s just clear that up, let’s clarify that the life of the mother is there. Let’s talk about what’s an elective abortion versus a non-elective abortion. Affirmative defense, I don’t think it’s reasonable to make a physician prove their innocence. So, let’s go back to the normal way the judicial system is – you have to prove they’re guilty.”
“Whether we get to rape and incest, if it gets to the House floor – the right language – I would support it, but we’ll have to see what we can get through the committee process.”
Clemmons: “Another piece of poorly-crafted legislation by the supermajority. Right now, they’re kind of like the dog that caught the car. They drafted a poor piece of legislation and now it’s gone into effect and they have to deal with the ramifications. Every Tennessee family is focused on this issue because this affects a lot of families across the state of Tennessee, as well as the medical profession.
“We tried to warn everybody, we tried to push for exceptions for rape and incest. If a 12-year-old girl gets raped by her father or her uncle, and she can’t make a decision about her future, that’s truly concerning. That’s exactly what their legislation does.”
“It also puts our medical professionals in a really dangerous situation. Now, they can’t even practice the medicine they were trained to do, and they’re going to be criminally prosecuted for it? Who wants to practice medicine in the state of Tennessee having to worry about being criminally prosecuted about doing what they were trained to do? We have a hard enough time getting healthcare professionals into rural parts of Tennessee.”
McNally: “I think (the affirmative defense) is workable in Tennessee. I don’t think you’ll see any attorney general prosecute a physician when a mother’s life is in danger. It’s the same defense that’s used when someone breaks into your house and you have to use force to take care of it. I support the law as it is now. If the courts decide to make some changes, we’ll look at those as they occur. Same with the attorney general’s. If it has problems, the legislature does have a way that it can handle it.”
Akbari: “Obviously, we would want a total repeal, but we do have to operate in the realm of reality and not fantasy. So, I would love to see some sort of true exception for the health and well-being of the mother, really giving the doctors the discretion that they need – not some sort of affirmative defense or something where they risk losing their medical license.”
Johnson: “I think you need to break it into two phases or two lanes, relative to the trigger law. We have been contacted by numerous people in the medical profession requesting that we revisit that language. To provide an affirmative defense versus an exception, I think we need to clarify that.”
“From a layman’s point of view, if it’s my daughter or a loved one or your loved one who is on the table, and their life is in danger, I don’t want a physician to have to think twice, second guess, call a lawyer to see what they need to do. If in that medical provider’s best judgment, they believe they need to terminate a pregnancy in order to save the life of the mother or to prevent irreparable harm, they need to be able to do so. And they shouldn’t worry about being prosecuted. I think that needs to be addressed, and I think that we will.”
“The second lane is where I would part all the other conversations about exceptions for rape and incest and those types of things. I do think there will be legislation filed, and I’ll be monitoring that very closely. I have long held that life begins at conception, and I feel very strongly about that.”
“But we, now that this decision is back in the hands of state legislators where I believe it should be – and I very much celebrate the overturning of Roe v. Wade – but that now puts it back on us to make these appropriate decisions and to have these conversations.”
There is Republican support to clarify the way the current law is written, particularly between Sexton and House Democrat Caucus Chairman Clemmons. While support is there, it depends on how significantly the Tennessee Right to Life PAC intervenes. The group has said one of its top priorities for this legislative session is protecting the law as it is.