Tennessee Right to Life pushed for a state constitutional amendment on abortion. Then the organization crafted Tennessee’s “trigger” ban without any exception to save the mother’s life. That law goes into effect next month.
On July 5, 2022, Tennessee Lookout published an interview with Will Brewer, legal counsel and lobbyist for Tennessee’s chapter of the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC), Tennessee Right to Life. Mr. Brewer’s answer to one question in particular left me wondering, “Does Tennessee Right to Life believe it has a right to lie?”
But first, here’s a little background:
In 2014, Tennessee Right to Life, the most powerful and influential anti-abortion organization in Tennessee, led and funded the campaign to amend the Constitution of Tennessee through a ballot measure. Voters were asked: Shall Article I, of the Constitution of Tennessee be amended by adding the following language as a new, appropriately designated section:
Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion. The people retain the right through their elected state representatives and state senators to enact, amend, or repeal statutes regarding abortion, including, but not limited to, circumstances of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest or when necessary to save the life of the mother. (emphasis mine)
A voter guide explained the amendment proposal for voters:
A yes vote means you want to give state lawmakers the ability to regulate abortion, removing the right to abortion from Tennessee’s constitution. Legislators will be empowered to pass, change or repeal state laws about abortion, including abortion under circumstances such as rape, incest or when the health of the mother is at risk. (emphasis mine)
Those against the amendment “argued that the last phrase of the amendment itself – regarding instances of rape, incest, and the life of the mother – misled voters to believe that abortion would be protected in those circumstances. One Knoxville News Sentinel columnist wrote: ‘Read the proposition carefully, however, and you’ll see that it really mandates nothing like exceptions. It really empowers our Legislature (if and when federal abortion rights guarantees disappear) to ban abortion entirely.'”
Supporters at the time claimed, “The left would have you believe abortion in Tennessee is in danger of being taken away completely, could become more unsafe and would not be allowed in the cases of rape, incest and the life of the mother. Given current law, all of those are false.”
Though I value the sanctity of life, I was among the minority who voted no (against the amendment). As Tennessee Lookout recently reflected, “‘Amendment 1’ was approved by 53 percent of voters in one of the most contentious and expensive ballot fights in state history.”
Fast forward to 2019: “Tennessee Right to Life crafted the language and engaged in sustained lobbying for what ultimately became the ‘Human Life Protection Act,’ the so-called ‘trigger’ law’” which will ban all abortions in Tennessee (at fertilization, before pregnancy even begins) once the law takes effect on August 25, 2022, Tennessee Lookout noted in their interview with Will Brewer of Tennessee Right to Life (emphasis mine).
Tennessee Right to Life crafted Tennessee’s “trigger” law:
And what did Tennessee Right to Life craft into law? The criminalization of doctors, with “no technical exceptions,” The Tennessean explained.
According to Tennessee’s law, “anyone who performs or attempts to perform an abortion commits the felony offense of criminal abortion. That applies even in cases involving saving the life of a mother,” the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported (emphasis mine).
Just take a moment to chew on that…
The trigger law, crafted by Tennessee Right to Life – and passed by legislators and signed into Law by Governor Bill Lee – offers doctors a “defense after an arrest has been made and charges filed,” explained The Tennessean. Every doctor that is “charged under the law would have to mount an ‘affirmative’ defense,” Chattanooga Times Free Press elaborated, “meaning they would have to hire an attorney to present a fact or facts to counter any allegations by prosecutors that they had acted illegally,” as they are being prosecuted in court.
Now back to my question:
So, why do I ask, “Does Tennessee Right to Life believe it has a right to lie?” Because Will Brewer of Tennessee Right to Life, in his interview with Tennessee Lookout, wasn’t being honest about the law his own organization crafted, the law for which he himself lobbied.
In his interview with Tennessee Lookout, Will Brewer of Tennessee Right to Life was asked:
“[I]n past abortion restrictions, you have included language making a clear exception for the ‘life of the mother.’ In the trigger law, it says doctors have an ‘affirmative defense’ to prosecution if the abortion is done to save that life. What is the logic in having that kind of language instead of an outright exception?“ (emphasis mine).
In response, Brewer made the specious claim that an exception for the life of the mother is “not really a relevant part of the statute,” because “the statute deals with elective abortions.”
Yeh, sure, and “If you like your health care plan, you can keep it.”
Despite Will Brewer’s dubious claim that an exception to preserve the life of the mother is “not relevant” to the law because it only deals with “elective abortions,” that is not what Tennessee Right to Life wrote into the law.
Section 2(b) declares: “A person who performs or attempts to perform an abortion commits the offense of criminal abortion. Criminal abortion is a Class C felony.” And in section 2(a)(1), Tennessee Right to Life defined “abortion” as “the use of any instrument, medicine, drug, or any other substance or device with intent to terminate the pregnancy of a woman known to be pregnant with intent other than
- to increase the probability of a live birth,
- to preserve the life or health of the child after live birth, or
- to remove a dead fetus.” (emphasis, formatting mine)
“The law criminalizes all termination, without exception, without making any attempt to differentiate between an elective termination and a medically necessary one,” explained Chloe Akers, a Tennessee criminal defense attorney (emphasis mine).
Any insistence to the contrary is nothing less than a lie.
Playing semantic games with women’s lives:
Yet, adding a semantic twist, Mr. Brewer continued, “If you treat the mother’s condition and the termination of the baby is a byproduct of the treatment, that is not an elective abortion and, therefore, it’s not covered under this statute” (emphasis mine). But for some pregnancy complications, abortion is not a “byproduct” of the treatment – it is the treatment. According to The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), “pregnancy complications such as placental abruption, bleeding from placenta previa, preeclampsia or eclampsia, chorioamnionitis, and cardiac or renal conditions may be so severe that an abortion is the only measure to preserve a patient’s health or save their life.”
Not a byproduct. A direct action. A direct abortion performed with the intent to preserve the life of the mother.
Additionally, as ACOG points out, “Treatment for ectopic pregnancy [also] requires ending a nonviable pregnancy,” and any “legislation that bans abortion care for those with an ectopic pregnancy or mandates how clinicians treat ectopic pregnancies does not reflect the clinical reality of ectopic pregnancy management and could result in delays or even denials of care.”
Maternal Mortality in Tennessee:
Tennessee has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the country: 58.5 deaths per 100,000 live births. The language of Tennessee’s “trigger” law could have serious implications for women in our state.
Pregnancy-related cardiovascular conditions are the leading cause of maternal deaths in Tennessee, according to a 2022 report by the State. Of these deaths, nearly half (48%) were caused by pre-eclampsia and eclampsia. Women between the ages of 30-39 are at the greatest risk, according to the report.
To reiterate, the ACOG explains that these pregnancy complications “may be so severe that an abortion is the only measure to preserve a patient’s health or save their life.”
Pre-eclampsia is a progressive, dangerous form of “gestational hypertension… in a woman with a previously normal blood pressure.” It is also known to cause “fetal growth restriction, oligohydramnios, placental abruption, and nonreassuring fetal status demonstrated on antepartum surveillance.”
Eclampsia is “the convulsive manifestation of the hyper tensive disorders of pregnancy and is among the more severe manifestations of the disease.”Source: ACOG
According to the Tennessee report, “90% of all pregnancy-related deaths were determined to be preventable.” Included in the factors identified in the report as contributing to pre-eclampsia and eclampsia maternal deaths are:
- “a failure to identify complications of severe preeclampsia”;
- “Despite vital signs, lab values, and physical exam evidence of critical illness, no escalation of care was implemented”;
- “ICU transfer was not considered before woman’s respiratory and cardiac arrest”; and
- “Lack of provider adherence to ACOG practice guidelines for preeclampsia.”
What effect will Tennessee’s new “trigger” law have on the number of preventable maternal deaths? How many women will go into cardiac arrest waiting for hospital panels and lawyers to approve medically-needed therapeutic abortion?
Well, bless their hearts:
Finally, speaking of himself and Tennessee Right to Life, Mr. Brewer lamented, “I do want to reiterate it’s really frustrated us in the past week there’s been so much attention spent on miscarriages and ectopic pregnancies. That’s not what this law deals with. And frankly I think it’s irresponsible of the folks that are claiming that to claim it…”
Well, bless their hearts.
Despite Will Brewer’s protestations, that is what the law deals with, and it does so because Tennessee Right to Life chose to swallow up life-saving terminations, including for terminating ectopic pregnancies, as felony abortion by choosing not to include an outright exception for abortions performed with the intent to preserve the life of the mother.
No amount of damage control through casuistry and semantic spin is going to change that fact.
No one forced Tennessee Right to Life to exclude an exception. That was their choice. And no one is forcing them to continue defending this law, as written. This is their choice. But Tennessee Right to Life is “frustrated” by concerns about the possible effects of the choices they made.
Well, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” (Rhett Butler).
No more lies:
No one elected Tennessee Right to Life to craft laws in our state. But if Tennessee Right to Life wants to play legislator and fiddle with maternity care, they need to own up and be honest, and take responsibility for whatever the unintended consequences may be of the bills they crafted and then lobbied into enactment. No gutless denials. No word games. No blame-shifting around people’s concerns, regardless of how “frustrating.” No more claims of caring about mothers.
No more lies.
And Tennessee Right to Life would do well to remember that they are not entitled to the public’s trust. Nor, it appears, have they earned it.
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