The Tennessee GOP is divided over the abortion ban

Nashville, Tennessee. — For months, Tennessee Republican leaders have argued that the state’s abortion ban — known as one of the the strictest in the US. — allows doctors to perform the procedure if it is necessary to save the patient’s life, even if the statute does not expressly say so.

The approval was met with skepticism by health experts, lawyers, Democrats and reproductive rights advocates, who argued that the law created a dangerous new legal field for those carrying a pregnancy and for health care providers.

As some isolated Republican lawmakers vouched for exceptionsthis week, a key legislative leader acknowledged that the naysayers were right — and he thinks the law needs to be changed.

“You have different people saying, I can’t see it, can you point it out?” In an interview with the Associated Press agency, the speaker of the House of Representatives, Cameron Sexton, said that the statute’s wording regarding exemptions is unclear. “If that’s the intention, let’s be clear. Let’s give lifelong relief to mothers.”

Sexton’s comments stand in stark contrast to the positions of Senate Speaker Randy McNally and Gov. Bill Lee, both Republicans. While all three lawmakers are largely opposed to abortion, Sexton is the only top Republican leader to acknowledge that the ban could be refined and improved.

Those divisions emerged as state lawmakers returned to the Tennessee capitol this week to begin the 2023 legislative session. They could become the next front in a legal battle over when and how to make exceptions to abortion bans in Republican-majority states.

With supermajority control, Tennessee Republicans are expected to advance a wide range of issues — from tax breaks to tougher penalties for certain crimes to policies aimed at treating transgender children — without much resistance. They also have to deal with the crisis at the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services that has been going on labeled as failing to adequately protect the state’s most vulnerable children. Sexton, meanwhile, said he would introduce legislation that would allow teachers to take up to six weeks of paid maternity leave.

Still, on abortion, the Republican split has left no certainty about what, if anything, will happen.

Tennessee’s abortion ban is considered one of the strictest in the country. It makes abortion a Class C felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison. There are currently no exceptions.

Instead, the law includes “affirmative protection” for doctors. Instead of forcing the state to prove that the procedure was not medically necessary, the law shifts the burden to the doctor to argue in court that it was.

Tennessee lawmakers pass law in 2019 to overturn US Supreme Court’s idea Roe v. Wade was a hope for most Republicans, not an impending reality. In the months since Tennessee’s law took effect, at least one Republican state lawmaker has admitted he voted for the trigger law after barely reading it because he never thought the high court would strike down constitutional rights to abortion.

However, in an interview with the AP, McNally said he supports the current law and doesn’t think it needs to be changed, saying “we’ll have to see how it works.”

McNally said he believes the law protects pregnant people, but “it’s not absolute because making a decision about a mother’s life is not absolute.”

He said that “it could be something that there is a small chance that it could harm her, or it could be a critical decision like an ectopic pregnancy.” He said he generally trusts prosecutors because they can decide whether or not to file charges according to the law.

And while he said he would likely vote against a bill that would change abortion law, McNally said abortion would not be used as a “litmus test” for GOP senators. He said he would not actively work to prevent the bill from coming to a vote.

“I don’t usually get involved and I usually trust the committee system, and I certainly would on this,” McNally said.

Lee, meanwhile, played down concerns that the current wording of the abortion ban on exceptions has caused confusion and fear in the medical community. An outspoken opponent of abortion rights, Lee argued that doctors could use “their best judgment” to save a pregnant woman’s life.

Sexton says his support for abortion exemptions aligns with the wishes of most Tennesseans, pointing out that various polls that have shown support for exemptions.

According to a recent Vanderbilt University poll, a majority of registered voters in Tennessee said they want rape or incest exceptions to the state’s comprehensive abortion ban — and many don’t know the specifics of what’s in today’s law.

According to the Vanderbilt survey, fewer than 1 in 5 could choose which of Vanderbilt’s statements most accurately describes the requirements of current abortion law.

However, Sexton said he’s not sure if there is enough support from the House GOP to add exemptions for rape and incest. He said several bills this session would amend the ban.

“We need, especially at our meeting, to listen to all the women and see what they have to say,” Sexton said. “There are going to be some who will believe in a (law) trigger, some who will believe that we need exemptions … but it has to be a conversation where we listen, not try to talk them into what we think is appropriate.”

Tennessee’s abortion ban has faced no legal challenges since it took effect last August. However, legal challenges are emerging across the country against strict restrictions imposed by states after the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling.

Most recently, the South Carolina Supreme Court repealed the ban on abortion about six weeks into the pregnancy, ruling that the Deep South state’s restriction violated the state’s constitutional right to privacy.

Copyright 2023 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, copied or distributed without permission.

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