Tennessee lawmakers writing legislation to carve out abortion option for child sex victims

Abortion-rights demonstrators
Posted at 7:09 PM, Jun 29, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-30 12:14:52-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF)  — Because Tennessee lawmakers never approved a provision for victims of rape and incest to seek abortion care, some legislators would like to see that change given the state's trigger ban laws will take effect soon.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decision enacted the six-week abortion ban law this week. Planned Parenthood providers performed their last abortion Tuesday in Tennessee. The legislation — known as the "heartbeat bill" — means abortions can't happen after a cardiac activity is detected on an ultrasound.

This all comes down after the Supreme Court of the United States overturned Roe v. Wade late last week. Further trigger laws in Tennessee will go into effect in less than 30 days following the Human Life Protection Act voted on by the legislature in 2019.

Those trigger laws are what some lawmakers are already looking to change as they go into effect by August, but some lawmakers said they may not waiver from their original position.

"Tennessee will be known for protecting our children," Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mt. Juliet, said on the floor during the discussion of the Human Life Protection Act in 2019. Lynn carried the legislation.

"We will be in a position to restore common-sense protections that express pro-life views and sentiments of Tennesseans," Lynn said.

Abortion Tennessee
People wait for a Senate hearing to begin to discuss a fetal heartbeat abortion ban, or possibly something more restrictive, Monday, Aug. 12, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, stood on the floor that April day questioning what would happen if victims of rape and incest wanted to seek out abortion services.

"If a future legislature wants to enact, it's up to that legislature," Lynn said.

Johnson said she was already drafting legislation this week in preparation for next year's legislative session. The Knoxville Democrat found fault with no sexual assault victims having rights to that option, especially children.

"It’s fair to say I will get started writing legislation now to push back on the misogyny and the danger this legislature has put women in," Johnson said. "We have to fight for women. Tennessee is now a hostile environment for women and girls. We have to fight for them everywhere we can."

Tennessee's Department of Health data tracks induced termination of pregnancy and birth rates for children under 18, which is the age of consent determined by state law.

In 2019, 211 children sought to end their pregnancies. Of those 211, 14 of those pregnancies fell into the age demographic of 10 to 14 years old, according to state data.

Abortion Pregnancy Centers
Portico Crisis Pregnancy Center nurse manager Diandra Bell straightens an examination table in an ultrasound room Jan. 26, 2022, in Murfreesboro, Tenn. States that have passed ever-restrictive abortion laws also have been funneling millions of taxpayer dollars into privately operated clinics that steer women away from abortions but provide little if any health care services. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

At the time of the vote on the Human Life Protection in 2019, Sen. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, tried to write in a provision for child sexual assault victims.

"I would want a victim of rape or incest to have the ability to have an abortion for children under 18 years old," Gilmore said.

Her efforts failed by voice vote, meaning each lawmaker's vote on the issue wasn't recorded on the Senate floor.

Now, Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, would like to take back up the effort, but he hasn't ironed out every detail of the legislation. Yarbro said lawmakers who voted for the measure didn't see through the reality of what might happen with these trigger laws in place, particularly when it came to children.

From 2015 until 2019, the state has recorded 1,249 induced termination of pregnancies for children under 18. Data for 2020 or 2021 is not yet available.

From 2015 until 2018, the state recorded 5,758 births from children between the ages of 10 to 17. That is also the latest data available.

"Under the law that we passed, children — who are under the age of 13 or 14 — will be forced to carry a child to term. They aren't old enough to consent to sexual activity and they will be forced to become mothers. In cases of incest, you will have children forced to become parents of half-siblings. We have really outrageous consequences that will be coming from this and I don't think the legislature has thought those things through at all," Yarbro said.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, said he stood behind the totality of the Human Life Protection Act as it was written. In 2019 he told The Tennessean he considered rape and incest arguments as "red herrings."

"If you look at different statistics, generally 1-3% of abortions — I think it's closer to the 1% — are the result of rape or incest," he said to the newspaper, though state data doesn't record the reason for a woman or child's induced termination of pregnancy.

He said now that provision could be brought back up in legislation for future sessions, but he didn't express any thought on how he might vote.

"I am supportive of the trigger law that will go into effect now," Johnson said. "I am supportive of the SCOTUS decision. That’s where I am, and that is my position. I support that law. I will say I am supportive of the SCOTUS decision because discussions on this issue can take place where they belong: at the state level. For today, I am supportive of the trigger bill and will."

Charlane Oliver — now a candidate for Gilmore's seat as she retires — said she understood from a personal perspective what it means to be a 17-year-old who was sexually assaulted and needed options, given her situation.

"I am having to relive a lot of the trauma I have experienced myself as a sexual assault survivor," Oliver said. "I had someone when I was 17 who was much older than me take advantage of me as a vulnerable child where I couldn't consent. It caused a lot of trauma in my life. It caused me to have to make a difficult decision with my body. As we are sitting here today stripping the rights of women and girls, it's very unfortunate that we are being relegated to second-class citizenship."