A Tennessee lawmaker helped pass a strict abortion law. He's now trying to loosen it
Updated February 1, 2024 at 10:57 AM ET
Five years ago, when state Sen. Richard Briggs co-sponsored legislation that would codify some of the country's most austere abortion restrictions in Tennessee – it seemed to him like little more than political theater.
"The truth was I thought it would never come to be," he says.
But three years later it did come to be. The Tennessee state law was triggered after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and ended the federal right to abortion. The state law established strict abortion bans and potential criminal penalties for doctors who violate them.
Now Briggs is fighting an uphill battle to undo some of the legislation he helped to put into place. It's a battle that some experts say could be instructive for the rest of the country.
A middle-of-the-road Tennessee Republican, Briggs is an unlikely advocate for reproductive rights. At 71, the retired Army colonel still carries himself with the upright authority of someone who served in the military. He often rises at 3 a.m. to make the drive from his district in Knoxville to the state Capitol in Nashville.
On a recent day in his Capitol office, he huddles with his aide, Rochelle Frazier, as she hands him a bill to review. A colleague has been asking Briggs to support it. "This one is called the right to die," Frazier says. "That one you can send back," he responds without hesitation. Advocates have been bringing him assisted suicide bills for years, he says, and he's never been persuaded.
But one thing that sets him apart from his Republican colleagues and causes: Briggs is also a practitioner of medicine. In the Army, he worked as a trauma surgeon and completed tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He's seen firsthand how dangerous pregnancies can threaten a woman's health as well as her fertility.
"That is the most basic human right we have, is the right for a couple to be able to have children and a family," he says.
Briggs is preparing to file a bill he's calling the Freedom to Have Children and Family Act. "What, to me, is 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," he says. The senator and his staff are working out the language, but he says his goal is to give more authority to doctors to terminate these kinds of pregnancies and lessen criminal penalties.
Briggs hasn't been especially contrite about his role in the 2019 legislation that established these laws. But he has been persistent in his commitment to changing them; this bill marks his second attempt. A similar effort last year ended in a bitter battle but ultimately did repeal some of the harshest restrictions.
Some people in Tennessee say he still has a long way to go to make things right.
"I do think that we find ourselves in exactly the position that lawmakers intended us to be in," says Elise Boos, an obstetrician in Nashville. "We're scared to death to provide care, and so it's withheld."
Boos handles high risk and medically complex pregnancies. Abortion is a significant part of her toolkit. Under current state law, she is allowed to terminate pregnancies that are a threat to the mother's life. But defining that threshold, she says, is easier said than done.
"It's a black and white law, and obstetrics is nothing but gray," Boos says. "You don't know all the corners and all the clinical scenarios that you're going to have to practice applying the law to until you finally are in that moment and thinking, 'Would this withstand scrutiny by an attorney general? Would this withstand scrutiny by 12 jurors who haven't gone to medical school?' "
Violations of the law could get her up to 15 years in prison.
She's still acclimating to the process of having to add calculations about her own legal liability into her clinical practice and advice to her patients. Boos says, "That feels like a violation of the oath that we take as physicians."
At the top of her legal wish list: the ability to help her patients through difficult decisions – sometimes the most difficult of their lives. Choosing to end a pregnancy when there's a lethal fetal anomaly, she says, "can be a gesture of love" from a parent to a child.
A recent poll from Vanderbilt University showed 76 percent of Tennesseans support exceptions to state abortion law for a nonviable pregnancy. Despite this widespread appetite for change, there are significant roadblocks to achieving it.
"Senator Briggs wants to create exceptions that we believe are too broad," says Will Brewer, lobbyist and legal counsel for Tennessee Right to Life. "Bad faith actors can fit a lot of things into that exception and get away with it." Brewer says his organization is concerned that exceptions could become broadly used justifications for terminating pregnancies.
The Right to Life's position looms large over Republican politicians in Tennessee who fear that conservative rivals could unseat them in primary elections. "It gets to this fear that you don't worry about the general election," says John Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. "What you worry about is somebody coming at you from the right. And so you're going to guard that flank."
This logic could backfire, he says, given recent abortion restrictions that even many conservative constituents don't like.
Tennessee is a supermajority; the Republican party has large majorities of both legislative chambers and it controls the governor's office. There are 19 states with conservative supermajorities. Geer says if voters' appetite to change abortion laws could nudge legislators toward the middle in Tennessee, it could happen elsewhere.
At the Capitol, Sen. Briggs is working to round up support for his agenda where he can get it. "Just because you pass a law doesn't mean it's immutable and it's never going to be changed," he says. Although in this case, Briggs acknowledges, changing the law to restore a woman's right to end a dangerous pregnancy has been difficult.
"It's been proven to be very stubborn," he says.
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