Sheila Butt is no stranger to saying things that rile her political opponents — only to then equivocate and prevaricate and as a last resort repudiate when angrily confronted by the dudgeon-afflicted.
It happened again to the Republican member of the Tennessee House of Representatives during the last days of the General Assembly’s 2015 regular session.
Lawmakers were contentiously debating a bill to require women seeking abortions to undergo a 48-hour waiting period after their first visit to a doctor about obtaining the procedure.
Most of the chamber’s Democrats opposed the measure outright and were seeking to attach provisions to derail or weaken it — although it eventually passed unamended, 79-18.
At one point, House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, proposed exempting women from the requirement in cases where their pregnancy resulted from rape or incest.
Butt stepped up to speak against that idea, and it was subsequently killed by the GOP-dominated chamber. “This amendment appears political because we understand that in most instances this is not verifiable,” Butt said of Fitzhugh’s proposal. “Let’s make sure that these women have the information and understanding to act.”
The next day Democratic Rep. Sherry Jones of Nashville, a reliably cantankerous voice of opposition to the Republican supermajority, chastised Butt for her choice of words.
“There are 206,000 women in Tennessee who unfortunately can attest to the fact that rape and incest are too verifiable,” Jones said. “Those women have endured horrors that we cannot imagine, and for it to be said that the violent crimes that they suffered are not verifiable is to suggest that they are somehow not legitimate rapes. That’s dangerous and it is insulting, to say the very least.”
“What we say in this room matters,” continued Jones. “And I would ask that members, especially my fellow female members speaking about rape and incest, remember that before they make any remarks.”
Butt retorted to Jones a few moments later. She claimed Jones had misrepresented her words.
“When we quote our colleagues on this floor, I think we respect each other enough to quote each other properly,” said Butt. “And I did make a comment yesterday that there are times when that those things are not. And so let’s make sure that we are quoted properly on the floor. I would appreciate that, and I would do that for you.”
However, over the weekend Butt’s hometown newspaper, the Columbia Daily Herald, ran a story indicating that Butt at some point began having second thoughts about the import of her pronouncement during the legislative debate.
Butt told the paper that when she used the word “verifiable,” that wasn’t exactly what she “intended” to say after all. Rather, Butt said the words she meant to use were “in most cases rape or incest is not verified at an abortion clinic.”
The Daily Herald further quoted Butt as saying, “Of course, we know that rape and incest can be verifiable, and I am grateful for that. I misspoke in my comments on the House floor, and I am sorry for the confusion that has caused.”
“We all make mistakes,” Butt reportedly said. “We all disagree on things. However, we can disagree with civility and respect and without hatefulness and contention and work together on the things on which we do agree. As a community and as human beings, we owe each other that.”