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Tennesseans misunderstand abortion law, want exceptions

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Most registered voters in Tennessee want exceptions for rape or incest in the state’s sweeping abortion ban, but they largely don’t know the specifics of what’s in the law as it stands today, according to new Vanderbilt University polling.

The disconnect comes in a state that votes consistently for Republicans and has one of the strictest abortion bans in the country. Three out of four people polled think that abortion should be legal if the pregnancy results from rape or incest, an exception that doesn’t exist in current law. But fewer than 1 in 5 were able to pick which of the statements Vanderbilt provided that most closely described the current abortion law’s requirements, according to Vanderbilt pollsters.

Asked about six descriptions, 36% of respondents said they did not know enough to say what the law entails, while 23% chose the option “illegal except in the case of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother.”

Tennessee’s ban doesn’t have an explicit exemption for the mother’s life. Instead, it shifts the burden to the doctor to make a case in criminal court, if charged with a felony under the law, that an abortion was needed to save the mother’s life or spare her from irreversible, severe impairment.

In legalese, the ban spells out an “affirmative defense” to protect the mother’s life, which Republican officials say translates to making exceptions to protect pregnant women’s health, even though it leaves the onus on the doctor to prove that the abortion was necessary.

They passed the law in 2019, only directing it to take effect if the Supreme Court struck down the Roe v. Wade abortion rights ruling.

The law makes performing an abortion a Class C felony, punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

The views of Tennesseans on rape and incest exceptions to the abortion ban — which even saw support from 6 out of 10 Republicans — echo, at least in part, what voters voiced nationally when they cast ballots last month.

Nationwide, about two-thirds of voters say abortion should be legal in most or all cases, according to AP VoteCast, an expansive survey of more than 90,000 voters across the country. Only about 1 in 10 say abortion should be illegal in all cases.

About 6 in 10 also say the Supreme Court’s abortion decision in June overturning Roe v. Wade made them dissatisfied or angry, compared with fewer who say they were happy or satisfied.

While elections nationwide left the country with a split control of Congress, Republicans continued to cruise in Tennessee. Republican Gov. Bill Lee won in a landslide, despite facing attacks from his Democratic opponent over the abortion law, which he supported and signed. Through a redistricting maneuver that carved up Democratic Nashville to favor the GOP, Republicans also managed to gain a seat in the U.S. House without any close calls. The GOP kept its supermajorities in the state Legislature, as well.

Additionally, this year’s Vanderbilt poll found that 37% of those surveyed said they were “pro-choice,” or in favor of abortion rights, up 15 percentage points from a decade ago, when only 22% favored “pro-choice” policies. Support for a “pro-life,” or anti-abortion, position fell from 46% in 2012 to 36% now.

In Tennessee, where voters don’t register by political party, those polled indicated they would be widely on board with abortion restrictions if they were significantly scaled back. Nearly 7 in 10 of voters polled — including almost 1 in 2 Democrats — indicated they think “abortion should be illegal after 15 weeks except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.”

John Geer, dean of Vanderbilt’s College of Arts and Science and co-director of the poll, said that nationally, he didn’t think information got out as effectively as it could have on various post-Roe abortion restrictions.

“A lot of what is going on, I think, is that legislators are reacting to where the competition lies,” Geer said. “And because of the redistricting and because Tennessee is such a Republican state, their main threat is from their flank, not from the center. Consequently, they are prepared to support these kinds of laws, even though they know that probably the broader public is not necessarily in support of them.”

To date, Lee has downplayed concerns that the abortion ban’s current language surrounding exemptions has sparked confusion and fear from the medical community. As a vocal opponent of abortion, Lee has maintained that doctors can use “their best judgment” to save the life of the mother.

Many medical officials in Tennessee disagree with Lee’s assessment and have since reached out to lawmakers, pleading for them to add more flexibility and clarification.

In response, a small pocket of Republican lawmakers have begun advocating for some exceptions to be added to the current ban. It’s unknown how successful those efforts will be when the General Assembly meets next month.

Vanderbilt conducted the survey of 1,180 registered Tennessee voters between Nov. 8 and Nov. 28. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.