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GOP leaders in some states want to add abortion ban exceptions

Stephen Elliott, on

Published in News & Features

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — With Tennessee’s so-called trigger law already on the books, the state enacted its abortion ban almost immediately after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade in June.

Yet even as anti-abortion legislators and advocates celebrated, they considered how much further they could go — perhaps by barring Tennesseans from seeking abortions in other states, or by restricting contraception.

But now, some GOP legislative leaders have returned to Nashville for the new session with a different attitude. Swayed by input from constituents and health care providers — and perhaps by a November poll showing that75% of Tennesseans believe abortion should be legal in cases of rape and incest — some key Republicans say they want to add exceptions to the law.

“First off, I'm anti-abortion, very strongly, but I'm more pro-life,” said Republican state Sen. Ferrell Haile, a pharmacist who is speaker pro tempore. “There's a high percentage of folks that think there need to be some tweaks made to this.”

House Speaker Cameron Sexton said an exception for the life of the patient would need “to be very clear.” Under the current law, which makes all abortions a felony, abortion providers must offer an “affirmative defense” if they are charged, admitting they were in violation of the law but had to act to save the patient’s life. Health care providers have protested that they should not be forced to prove their innocence for actions taken during life-or-death situations.

“I think there needs to be a discussion about rape and incest as well,” Sexton said. “Whether or not we can get that, I’m not sure, but there needs to be a discussion.”


The Tennessee Senate leader and governor support the law as written. Tennessee legislative leaders have not released any proposed exception language, but states with rape and incest exceptions typically require patients to prove that an assault occurred. In Utah, for example, a woman who claims her pregnancy was the result of rape or incest must file a police report, though most sexual assaults nationwide go unreported. Mississippi and Idaho also require law enforcement involvement.

Some Republicans in other states with strict abortion bans, including Texas and Wisconsin, also might be interested in adding rape and incest exceptions. But abortion rights supporters point out that few if any patients have qualified for abortions in the states that do have exceptions.

An August poll by the University of Texas showed that 78% of Texans support an exception for incest and 80% favor an exception for rape. GOP House Speaker Dade Phelan said at the Texas Tribune Festival in September that he has heard from House members who are concerned about the absence of exceptions.

At the same event, one of the state’s longest-serving Republican state senators said he would support a rape exception.


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