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House committee moves forward a bill to allow narrow exceptions to Tennessee’s abortion law

Tennessee Lookout
John Partipilo
Tennessee House of Representatives

A bill to allow very specific exceptions to Tennessee’s abortion ban passed a key House committee Wednesday.

The legislation would allow doctors to perform an abortion in the case of an ectopic and molar pregnancies — a rare, noncancerous tumor that develops as the result of a non-viable pregnancy — or when a doctor determines it’s necessary to prevent the mother’s death.

Rep. Esther Helton-Haynes, R-East Ridge, and Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, are sponsoring the legislation filed as House Bill 883.

After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last summer, the state banned all abortions. The law doesn’t specifically allow doctors to perform the procedure to save the mother’s life. Instead, doctors can use saving a mother’s life as a defense in court.

“I believe removing the affirmative defense will protect women,” Helton-Haynes said to the committee.

Tennessee Lookout
John Partipilo
Sen. Ken Yager, R-Kingston

It’s one of several Republican-led bills dealing with Tennessee’s law that bans all abortions. Tennessee Right for Life — which opposes all abortion — endorsed different legislation dealing with abortion exceptions, House Bill 778, also sponsored by Helton-Haynes and Sen. Ken Yager, R-Kingston.

But, Helton-Haynes said the amendment to House Bill 883 is the same one Tennessee Right to Life endorsed in the other bill.

Rep. Bo Mitchell said despite the bill allowing some exceptions, he still opposed it because it doesn’t allow for an exception for rape or incest.

“We should not have a draconian law that harms women,” Mitchell said.

Dr. Amy Gordon Bono, who practices in Mt. Juliet, acknowledged afterward the bill offers a step forward by eliminating the affirmative defense, which would require physicians to defend themselves in court for performing an abortion to save a woman’s life. But she still raised concerns about the measure, saying “doctors are not going to be able to practice patient-centered care.”

Questions were raised during debate about when a physician would be able to end a pregnancy to save a woman’s life or whether the doctor would have to wait until she nearly bleeds to death or strokes out.

“Whenever I am making a decision to help a patient, I always want to put my patient first,” Bono said. “And I need my good-faith medical judgment in order to do that.”

The language in the bill was changed to substitute “reasonable judgment” for “good-faith judgment.”

An amendment approved in February by the House Health subcommittee, which was replaced Wednesday, provided more “clarity” for physicians, Bono said. She noted patients will suffer because doctors won’t know how far they can let patients go before they “teetering” on the brink of death.

This story was originally published by the Tennessee Lookout.

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor with the Tennessee Lookout, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.
Adam Friedman is a reporter with the Tennessee Lookout. He has a particular love for data and using numbers to explain all kinds of topics. If you have a story idea, he'd love to hear it. Email him at or call him at 615-249-8509.
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