NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — One of Tennessee’s most powerful Republicans said Thursday he is open to changing the state’s abortion ban. Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton said he wants to clarify the part of the state law dealing with exceptions in cases where a mother’s life is at risk.
“I think there will be a bill or at least a couple bills to at least clean up the trigger bill,” Rep. Sexton said. “There’s people who say life of the mother is included. There are people who say life of the mother isn’t included. So, let’s just clear that up. Let’s clarify that life of the mother is there.”
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.
“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 that you have to prove they are guilty,” Sexton added.
Doctors and attorneys have said this part of the law puts doctors at risk of being charged with a Class C felony.
“The statute in itself criminalizes an entire medical procedure without exception,” said criminal defense attorney Chloe Akers.
But the sponsor of the “Human Life Protection Act” says her colleagues and doctors just need more information to understand the ban.
“I feel like it is written well for the doctors, I don’t see why the doctors wouldn’t like it,” said Rep. Susan Lynn (R-Wilson County).
In October, more than 700 doctors wrote a letter to lawmakers urging them to reconsider the law.
“Every day since I’ve learned about the implications of the trigger ban, I worry about becoming a felon,” said Dr. Laura Andreson at a rally last year.
Tennessee Right to Life says one of its top priorities for the upcoming legislative session is protecting the law as it is.
“They knew what they were doing when they passed this in 2019 and they wanted a law, a strong law to protect all unborn children,” Tennessee Right to Life President Stacy Dunn said of the trigger law. “That’s what they voted for and that’s what they want.”
A recent Vanderbilt poll found 75% of Tennessee voters think abortion should be legal in the case of rape and incest. Sexton also said he would consider adding those exceptions to the law.
“Whether we get to rape and incest, if it gets to the house floor, the right language, I would support it. But we will have to see what we can get through the committee process,” he explained.
Rep. Lynn and Dunn said that is not something they would support.
“Children conceived even by rape and incest are still people,” Lynn said. “They deserve to live because they haven’t done anything wrong.”
When asked if Tennessee Right to Life would consider revoking support for state lawmakers who support clarifications or changes to the bill, Dunn said that is something they take seriously but would consider it on a case-by-case basis.
The legislative session for 2023 begins on January 10.