Rep. Yusuf Hakeem introduces bill that could provide exceptions to Tennessee’s current abortion law

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Tennessee state law, legal system and justice concept with a 3d render of a gavel on a wooden desktop and the Tennessean flag on background.
Rep. Yusuf Hakeem is proposing a new bill that he says would protect the health and safety of women in Tennessee
Sen. Rusty Crowe, a Bristol Republican, is looking at legislation that could provide exceptions to Tennessee’s current abortion law.

Rep. Yusuf Hakeem is sponsoring a bill that could provide exceptions to Tennessee’s abortion law when lawmakers return to the State Capitol Jan. 10 to begin the 2023 legislative session. 

HB10 proposes exceptions regarding issues of rape and incest, as well as the health and potential death of the mother. It calls for additional exceptions for the pregnant woman’s mental health.

The bill also requires the doctor who performs the abortion to verify the patient reported the offense to law enforcement before the procedure.

“This bill specifies that the offense of criminal abortion does not include an abortion that was necessary due to a medical emergency affecting the physical or mental health of the pregnant person or performed on a patient whose pregnancy was the result of rape or incest when the physician performing the abortion has verified the patient reported the offense to the appropriate law enforcement agency prior to the procedure,” the text of Rep. Hakeem’s bill, filed Dec. 8 of last year, said.

Tennessee’s “trigger” law went into effect in August 2022, making abortions illegal in Tennessee, with little to no exceptions. In anticipation of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning its landmark 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, Tennessee’s Republican dominated legislature passed the Human Life Protection Act in 2019.

The law excludes mental health as a medical risk that can be taken into account. And any Tennessee doctor who performs an abortion would need to prove in criminal court that the procedure was necessary, or face felony charges, prison time and stiff fines.

Citing a local resident whom he said had experienced a near-death situation since the “trigger” law took effect in August, District 28 Democrat Hakeem noted that sometimes after a law is implemented, consequences follow that were not considered.

“We’ve had an example of that here in the city of Chattanooga, where we’ve had a citizen who had to be driven by ambulance for six hours to North Carolina so that she could have a necessary abortion to save her life,” Rep. Hakeem said.

Last summer, Democrats said they would be proposing a litany of bills designed to turn back the state’s abortion ban, which is among the most stringent in the nation. On the other hand, GOP lawmakers voted overwhelmingly for the “trigger ban” in 2019. And Republican Gov. Bill Lee said he is “satisfied” with the law as written and doesn’t think it needs to be changed. 

Now, six months after one of the nation’s most restrictive abortion laws took effect in Tennessee, some GOP state lawmakers appear ready to loosen it. 

Sen. Rusty Crowe, a Bristol Republican, is looking at legislation which would make saving the life of the mother an exception rather than require an “affirmative defense” in which the physician would have to introduce evidence in court to negate criminal or civil liability, proving an abortion was necessary to stop the mother from dying or suffering a life-altering illness.

“In the upcoming legislative session, Sen. Crowe wants to ensure the law protects physicians who perform life-saving abortions when the life of the mother is in jeopardy. At this point, Sen. Crowe has not met with stakeholders to discuss specific legislation but he looks forward to doing so in the coming weeks and months,” said Senate Republican Caucus spokeswoman Molly Gormley.

And House Speaker Cameron Sexton is saying he would back exceptions to the abortion restrictions.

“Speaker Sexton believes clarification is needed in the current law, as well as a change to affirmative defense–meaning someone has to prove their innocence which runs contrary to our judicial system. A doctor should not be singled out under affirmative defense instead of the usual standard of being innocent until proven guilty,” spokesman Doug Kufner said last week. “As with any legislation, should a proposal with agreeable language make it through the committee system to the House floor–including exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother–the speaker would be supportive.” Sexton is expected to appoint a committee when the General Assembly convenes, along with standing committees, that would shepherd such legislation through the House.