Tennessee Lawmaker Is Now Trying to ‘Fix’ the Awful Abortion Ban That He Helped Write
“I thought it would never come to be,” Sen. Richard Briggs (R) told NPR of the ban he co-authored in 2019. Excuse me while I roll my eyes all the way back.
Since the summer of 2022, Tennessee’s abortion ban has been an unmitigated disaster for pregnant women navigating the state’s health care system. Now Sen. Richard Briggs (R), one of the trigger law’s co-authors, is trying to add exceptions to the total abortion ban that would allow people with nonviable pregnancies to have abortions as well as expand doctors’ authority to determine when that’s necessary. In essence, Briggs is trying to put an ineffective band-aid on the abortion ban that he co-wrote in the first place.
Currently, Tennessee’s medical emergency exception is impossibly vague and only seems to apply to situations when the pregnant person is basically about to die. “To me what’s unacceptable is if you determine that there is a pregnancy that cannot live outside the womb, and you’re going to force that woman to carry that to term,” Briggs told NPR’s All Things Considered Wednesday. And incidentally, that’s exactly what the abortion ban that Briggs literally wrote does!
Regardless, Briggs says he’s now working on legislation to add exceptions, though no bill has been filed yet. He also said he wanted to add exceptions like this last year but it was shut down fairly quickly by fellow Republicans.
The NPR podcast observes that “five years ago, he wasn’t known as an advocate for reproductive rights,” and, frankly, nor should he be known as one now! “The truth was I thought it would never come to be,” Briggs said of the law he wrote and voted for—the law that’s led at least one woman who had to travel out-of-state for an emergency abortion to contract sepsis. Another woman, who’s part of an ongoing lawsuit challenging the state to clarify the ban, was denied an emergency abortion for her nonviable pregnancy and was forced to carry the pregnancy for months before having a stillbirth. She called the experience “physical and emotional torture.” Other women who joined that lawsuit have said they want to have children but fear ever being pregnant again in the state of Tennessee, knowing they could face life-threatening pregnancy conditions and be denied care.
Really, what else did Briggs expect to happen when he wrote the bill five years ago, with Trump as president and a geriatric Supreme Court Justice filing in and out of the hospital throughout his presidency? What did he think would happen when he wrote a law that would automatically take effect and sweepingly ban abortion the moment Roe was overturned? The suffering, terror, and total disruption of the health care system in Tennessee was entirely preventable—if Briggs cared enough to consider the destruction that abortion bans inflict on people’s real, non-hypothetical pregnancies and lives.
But he didn’t. Because, mind you, this is not “an advocate for reproductive rights,” this is a man who created a law that’s currently terrorizing women and pregnant people, and he’s now trying to back-track and save face by adding an exception that probably won’t help all that much. The problem with abortion bans, after all, isn’t a lack of exceptions—it’s the fact that these bans exist, period. Often, in urgent, time-sensitive situations, doctors are forced to waste precious time consulting with lawyers about whether someone qualifies for an exception. As one Center for Reproductive Rights lawyer told Jezebel in January, exceptions are often just “window dressing to make abortion bans look reasonable.”
And despite not even being very helpful, exceptions have still proven a challenge to add to these laws. In Tennessee, just last year, a small coalition of Republican lawmakers attempted to add a rape exception to the state’s ban but it also threatened anyone who “lied” about being raped with three years in prison. They eventually walked back the ghoulish threat of prison but only after receiving backlash. Hard-line anti-abortion Republicans in the legislature who opposed any exceptions ultimately triumphed and the bill failed.
At the time, one advocate for the rape exception bill told Jezebel that Republican lawmakers in Tennessee’s legislature “fear [Tennessee] Right to Life retaliating” against them, as the powerful anti-abortion organization opposed adding a rape exception. Similarly, a local news station reported last summer that Briggs’ effort to add broader medical exceptions to the ban failed when Tennessee Right to Life “came in and threatened lawmakers during a subcommittee hearing” with lower “pro-life” ratings if they backed these exceptions. (“It [should] be ‘Tennessee Right to Life under certain conditions,’” Briggs said in 2023. “It’s certainly not ‘Tennessee Right to Life for mothers.’”) An attorney for the organization told NPR this week that they oppose Briggs’ proposal this year, too, accusing him of “[wanting] to create exceptions that we believe are too broad,” and arguing that “bad faith actors can fit a lot of things into that exception and get away with it.”
If and when Briggs’ proposal fails, that will leave Tennesseeans with nothing but the original abortion ban that he himself authored. May we please never let lawmakers like this rebrand themselves as heroes.