Abortion becomes early flashpoint in Tennessee Senate race as Sen. Blackburn draws challengers

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Senator Marsha Blackburn speaks during a panel discussion in Chattanooga on Aug. 15.

NASHVILLE — A U.S. House Republican-passed bill that's going nowhere in the Democratic-led Senate has become a political flash point in Tennessee's Senate race between Sen. Marsha Blackburn and one of her three Democratic opponents.

At issue is the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act. The newly GOP-controlled House bill requires that all infants born after a failed abortion receive medical care. It passed in January with only one Democrat in support.

Republicans, including former President Donald Trump in his "Meet the Press" interview Sunday, have used Democratic opposition to the measure to suggest Democrats support abortion even after birth.

"I know that they have supported abortion up to the last minute before and after birth," Blackburn said during a recent appearance on Fox Business, regarding Democrats state Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, Marquita Bradshaw and Dylan Fain, who have filed to run.

The head of the American College of Obstetricians and Gyneologists in January denounced the bill.

"The offensively named 'born-alive' legislation is another cruel and misguided attempt to interfere with evidence-based medical decision making between patients and their physicians," ACOG President Iffath Abbasi Hopkins said in a statement at the time. "This bill is not based in science or medicine. It is meant to incite emotions, rather than reflect the reality of evidence-based clinical care. This legislative interference will harm families and hinder the ability of physicians to practice such evidence-based medicine."

Johnson, a staunch supporter of abortion rights, says she backs enshrining the 1973 Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade in federal law. The decision was overturned by the nation's high court in 2022.

Earlier this year, Johnson, a retired teacher, described her own experience as a 21-year-old student during a state House hearing on a bill she co-sponsored. It sought to restore Roe-era provisions in state law. Johnson revealed in the hearing that she became pregnant, but after being informed by her doctor that she had an aortic aneurysm rupture and that the fetus would be harmed by treatment, Johnson said she chose to have an abortion.

Johnson, who is not in the House of Representatives, has not had an opportunity to vote on the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act.

"Corrupt Marsha is lying again," Johnson said in a phone interview last week. "This bill is pure propaganda to push disinformation about abortion later in pregnancy."

The legislation doesn't have the necessary 60 votes to end an expected Democratic filibuster in the Senate. Asked by the Chattanooga Times Free Press whether she would vote against the bill if she is elected, Johnson did not answer directly.

  photo  Staff photo by Matt Hamilton/ Rep. Gloria Johnson speaks during a rally stop for a gun reform bus tour in Miller Park on Aug. 16.

"It isn't up, is it?" she stated in a text.

After a reporter replied it currently doesn't have the 60 votes to overcome an expected filibuster, Johnson said that's what she thought.

"Marsha's bill is more dead than Elvis," Johnson said. "This bill is pure propaganda to push disinformation about abortion later in pregnancy. It goes to that comment she made about abortion after birth. I mean that's just nuts. And here's the truth, if Marsha gets her way, more women will die preventable deaths because doctors will hesitate when a pregnancy is about to kill their patient.

"It's solving a problem that doesn't exist," Johnson said.

While Blackburn is a co-sponsor of the Senate bill, the leading sponsors are U.S. Sens. John Thune, R-South Dakota, and James Lankford, R-Oklahoma.

Blackburn has said she supports exceptions in cases of rape, incest and to save the life of a mother. No provisions are in the bill for those exceptions.

Abortion has been a continuing issue in the Senate. Earlier this year, U.S. Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Alabama, placed holds on nominations for high-ranking military positions over the Department of Defense providing financial assistance and support for female military members who must travel to other states to obtain an abortion.

"Tommy Tuberville is aiding and abetting foreign dictators who hate America and target our troops," Johnson said in a recent text to the Times Free Press. "He's betrayed our military for political points, and Blackburn's continued silence on the issue is especially disgraceful when too many troops call Tennessee home."

Blackburn campaign spokesperson Abigail Sigler blasted Johnson's comments and stances.

"Gloria Johnson is so woke she wants abortion on demand up until the moment of birth, and even after," Sigler said in a statement. "The Democrats and DoD (Department of Defense) could call for an individual vote on any of these nominations, but they have chosen not to because they don't want to discuss the policy. Giving free annual leave — all expenses paid — for an abortion, but not for the death of a family member is one of many examples of how the military has been politicized."

Whatever Democrat winds up winning the party's Senate nomination faces an uphill climb. The last Democrat to win a U.S. Senate seat was Al Gore in 1990. In 2018, Blackburn defeated former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen for the open seat.

Contact Andy Sher at [email protected] or 615-285-9480.