Pro-abortion lawmakers push sweeping repeal of Tennessee’s pro-life measures

Pro-abortion lawmakers are proposing to roll back a suite of pro-life laws in Tennessee in an attempt restore Roe v. Wade‘s abortion provisions.

Proposed on Tuesday, the Fundamental Right to Reproductive Health Care Act targets the state’s trigger ban that took effect in August. As the trigger law came close to taking effect, several abortion facilities in the state either halted abortions or closed their doors

Besides legalizing abortion, Rep. London Lamar’s proposal would strike current provisions prohibiting taxpayer funding of abortion and mandate that health insurance exchange plans cover the procedure. Among other things, it would also remove restrictions on the abortion pill, revoke plans to create a monument to preborn children, remove abortion reporting requirements, as well as redefine ambulatory surgical centers to include abortion facilities.

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Another provision would remove a portion of state code prohibiting public schools from “knowingly enter[ing] into a transaction to assist in teaching family life with an individual or entity that … [p]rovides abortion referrals.” State law defines “family life education” as “abstinence-centered sex education.”

During a press conference, Senate Democratic Caucus Chair London Lamar (Memphis) denounced the legal framework that arose after the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs.

“We are here because we envision a world where Tennesseans are free to raise their children in safe, supportive, healthy, and loving communities free from government interference in their personal, family decisions,” she said. In 2000, Lamar appeared in a maternal health campaign ad promoting Michael Bloomberg, a former New York City Mayor and Democratic presidential candidate who donated millions toward successful pro-abortion efforts in Kansas and Michigan during the last election cycle. 

“At this moment, we Democrats want to reiterate our commitment to the fight for control over our own bodies and the right to decide if our life matters more. That is why we are gathering to introduce the Fundamental Right to Reproductive Health Care Act. The bill will restore full rights to abortion, a right that women have had for the past 50 years. The fight to reinstate abortion access is about allowing women to choose their own life.”

Lamar also suggested that under current state law, “women can face death and our physicians can’t save our lives.” 

The trigger law effectively banned all abortions but included a controversial provision allowing doctors to defend themselves in court by arguing the mother’s life was in danger. Known as an “affirmative defense,” the law has prompted concerns that state lawmakers are removing the presumption of innocence for doctors who performed the procedure. That, along with the bill’s lack of exceptions for rape and incest, has reportedly prompted opposition from Republicans as well as Democrats.

Referring to the affirmative defense, Sen. Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville) reportedly said: “What that means is that you’re guilty until proven innocent, which is contrary to what we normally use in the judiciary system.” 

According to WKRN, Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mt., defended the provision as “a very smart thing.” She said: “We’re trusting doctors to make that medical decision. They have the medical expertise, and they have the medical records that can prove that they acted rightly.”

It’s unlikely that Lamar’s bill will receive support from Republicans but House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) has reportedly said he believes the trigger law needs clarification, and that future legislation should include rape and incest exceptions.

“From all the conversation I had, people say the life of the mother is in there that was the intent,” he said, according to WPLN. “It may be the intent, but people don’t see it. So, we got to go back and clarify.”

“I think the other thing you got to look at is the affirmative defense for physicians. That’s the other issue that they have where they’re presumed guilty on the front end instead of presumed innocent. We need to flip that back to the original judicial system. Doctors are afraid to do anything because they’re unclear what the trigger bill does or doesn’t do because there’s so many variations of opinions.”

Tennessee’s political battle reflects the more complicated nature of abortion debates taking place across the country. At the national level, Republicans have similarly encountered divisions over how to restrict abortion now that states have greater authority in the absence of Roe.

For example, Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) has opposed excluding rape and incest exceptions from federal legislation. “There are members of Congress up here that want to bring forth a bill to the floor that bans all abortions with no exceptions. That is not where the vast majority of people are in this country,” she reportedly said.

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