NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — With one of the strictest abortion laws in the country, medical students and residents are facing roadblocks.
“We have to have certain numbers of abortions we have performed,” Dr. Kristen Beierwaltes. “So, by them not even allowing us to have exceptions in this state, that limits our ability to access these cases that we are supposed to reach and build.”
Beierwaltes, a resident OB-GYN, said many of them are forced to go out of state. “If we can’t meet our numbers within the state, where can we go to meet our numbers so that we can become certified OB-GYNs?”
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At the same time, there is now just one bill left to potentially add some medical exemptions to the current Tennessee abortion law. It unanimously passed a House Health Committee Wednesday evening, though Democrats said they’re still pessimistic about its outlook.
“We’re losing confidence every day that [it] passes,” Rep. John Ray Clemmons (D-Nashville) said Tuesday evening.
The bill would change the ‘affirmative defense clause’ allowing medical providers to perform abortions if the mother’s life was at risk if those providers’ “reasonable medical judgment” called on them to do so.
Republicans said this language is what they want to move forward on.
“With Section Two removing the affirmative defense, I believe it gives doctors the ability to take care of these pregnant mothers when their life is in danger,” Rep. Esther Helton-Haynes (R-East Ridge) said during the committee hearing.
A previous iteration of the bill had arguably more exceptions, but a new amendment published Tuesday night drew many of those back.
“The language was worked out with the AG and the governor’s office, as well as with the Senate,” Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) said. “What we’ve always said is if you define the life of the mother, and saving the life of the mother, correctly, you won’t have to have lethal fetal anomalies in there because that will be taken care of.”
Sen. Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville) sponsored the bill in the Senate and said he wasn’t aware of the recent amendment.
“I haven’t amended my bill at all,” Briggs said. “I think my bill is a very, very good bill. It’s very clear.”
The changes came after pushback from TN Right to Life – a conservative anti-abortion lobbyist group – joined a House Health Population Subcommittee weeks ago and threatened lawmakers with poor scores from the organization.
But Briggs pushed back Wednesday, saying if the group was truly a pro-life group, it would be in favor of his expanded bill, as it also protects the fertility of mothers.
“It can preserve the fertility of a woman,” Briggs said. “It can allow women, in the future, to have children. It can allow women, in the future, to have families.”
All the restrictions could force young medical professionals to look elsewhere, leaving Tennessee mothers to pay the price.
“[The younger generation is] not going to want to go to states where they have to worry about, are they going to be able to get the appropriate training to be able to care for patients down the road?’ medical student Avery Bogart said. “Are they going to be risking their own freedom?”
The CDC shows Tennessee has the fourth-highest maternal mortality rate in the country, behind just Arkansas, Kentucky, and Alabama.