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Antiabortion-Rights Tenn. Lawmakers Plan New Bills After State Constitutional Amendment Passes

November 7, 2014 — Tennessee's Republican legislative leaders plan to pass new abortion restrictions in the upcoming session after voters on Tuesday approved a state constitutional amendment (Amendment 1) declaring that there is no right to abortion, the Tennessean reports.

Background

The amendment received 54% of the vote, according to the Tennessean (Wadhwani, Tennessean, 11/6). It amends the Tennessee constitution to include the statement, "Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion. The people retain the right through their elected state representatives and state senators to enact, amend, or repeal statutes regarding abortion, including, but not limited to, circumstances of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest or when necessary to save the life of the mother."

The ballot effort was seen as a response from abortion-rights opponents to the 2000 state Supreme Court ruling, which found that "a woman's right to terminate her pregnancy is a vital part of the right to privacy" under Tennessee's state constitution and that any abortion restrictions should be subject to a "strict scrutiny" legal standard. The ruling had made it more difficult for state lawmakers to implement certain antiabortion-rights measures that are in place in other conservative states (Women's Health Policy Report, 11/5).

Supporters of Amendment 1 often cite a finding from the state Department of Health that nearly 23% of women who receive abortions in Tennessee are not from the state. According to the AP/ABC News, that figure alone "is a little misleading" in terms of the impact of the 2000 state Supreme Court ruling, as the rate was about 19% before the court's decision (Loller, AP/ABC News, 11/6).

Planned Antiabortion-Rights Measures

State House Speaker Beth Harwell (R) on Wednesday announced that she would be supporting three antiabortion-rights measures when the state Legislature reconvenes in January.

Specifically, Harwell will push for bills that would establish a mandatory delay before a woman can obtain an abortion, require medical professionals to provide state-mandated information to women seeking abortion care and require inspections of abortion facilities.

Harwell said that after the passage of Amendment 1 she "think[s] the general population has spoken" and that state residents "have said they want us to examine our abortion laws and see what appropriate action needs to be taken, and I believe the legislature will look for some common sense regulations that ensure that abortion is a safe procedure in our state."

Bills Likely To Pass, Hinder Access

Stakeholders have said that any antiabortion-rights bills would be extremely difficult to defeat in the Tennessee Legislature, as Republicans have supermajorities in both the state House and state Senate (Tennessean, 11/6). In addition, Gov. Bill Haslam (R), who supported Amendment 1, was re-elected on Tuesday (McWhirter, "Washington Wire," Wall Street Journal, 11/5).

State Rep. Sherry Jones (D) said that the supermajorities, combined with the passage of the ballot measure, allow "the Tennessee General Assembly to do anything they want with a woman's right to make her own choices and live her own life" and that "anything the Republican Party brings up to change the way women make their healthcare decisions will pass." She added, "I'm afraid we are going back to the days when women are desperate and have no place to go" (Tennessean, 11/6).

Guttmacher Institute policy analyst Elizabeth Nash said, "If the goal here is to shut abortion clinics, I imagine they will be fairly successful." However, she said that abortion-rights opponents likely would not be able to close all of the state's abortion clinics.

Meanwhile, Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, warned that "extreme, medically-irrelevant laws will be strongly opposed by voters" (AP/ABC News, 11/6).

Rebecca Terrell, executive director of Choices, the Memphis Center for Reproductive Health, cautioned that a "waiting period may seem like a good idea ... [b]ut if a woman has to take two days off work to go back to a clinic, or pay for childcare or travel five hours twice, she may not get the care she needs," adding "of course, that's the intent" of such legislation (Tennessean, 11/6).