Party lines drawn in debate over abortion amendment — but not always clearly

The executive committees of Tennessee’s Republican and Democratic parties have officially taken opposing sides on a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would clear a legal roadblock to the state Legislature’s enactment of more restrictions on abortions.

But there are indications that the partisan lineup on Amendment One, as the proposition will be labeled on the November ballot statewide, is not exactly uniform.

Indeed, the top donor so far to the Yes on One Ballot Committee, set up to campaign for passage of the amendment, is Democratic former state Rep. Charles Curtiss of Sparta, who gave the group $10,000 from leftover money in his legislative campaign account, records show. And several Democratic legislators, Curtiss included, supported the amendment when the General Assembly approved putting it on the ballot.

A Vanderbilt University poll released last week found that 71 percent of the 1,245 registered Tennessee voters surveyed oppose “giving the state Legislature the constitutional authority to regulate abortions,” while 23 percent support the idea. Support was not much higher among those identifying themselves as Republicans — 32 percent. Only 15 percent of Democrats and 21 percent of those calling themselves Independent voiced support.

John Geer and Joshua Clinton, Vanderbilt political science professors who served as co-directors of the poll, said the results are not necessarily indicative of the outcome in this fall’s referendum. The high level of opposition may reflect, in some cases, voter concern over giving more power to the Legislature.

Two other questions on the Vanderbilt survey touched on abortion.

One asked whether voters considered themselves “pro-life” or “pro-choice.” The result was virtually a tie, falling within the stated “margin of error”: 47 percent “pro-life” and 50 percent “pro-choice.”

The other question asked when abortion should be legal, and results showed 25 percent favored legal abortions “in all cases,” 20 percent supported it in no situations and 50 percent thought it should be legal only in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.

The amendment proposes to insert the following language into the Tennessee Constitution:

“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 intent is to effectively reverse a 2000 state Supreme Court decision that found the current state constitution provides women a right to an abortion, though it is not specifically mentioned, that is stronger than the right to an abortion the U.S. Supreme Court found in the landmark case of Roe v. Wade.

The Tennessee court ruling had struck down some restrictions on abortion enacted by the Legislature, including that a woman seeking an abortion receive mandatory counseling from a physician.

Currently, the U.S. Supreme Court authorizes abortion in certain circumstances and that limits state action, though some anti-abortion activists are hoping Roe v. Wade and related decisions will be overturned.

State Democratic Party Chairman Roy Herron attempted as a state senator to revise the amendment language to specifically say that abortion would be permitted in cases of rape, incest or to save a mother’s life. His efforts were rejected by the Senate’s Republican majority.

In a recent fundraising appeal, the state Democratic Party said the “deceptively worded amendment crafted by right-wing Republican legislators” is “a clear and present danger to Tennessee women” because “it will effectively give the Tea Party Republicans in state government the power to completely outlaw abortion, no matter the circumstances, no exceptions.”

In January, the state Democratic Executive Committee voted to declare opposition to Amendment One.

The Republican resolution supporting Amendment One, adopted unanimously by the party’s executive committee in December, says it would “make the Constitution of the state of Tennessee neutral on the issue of abortion and return authority over abortion policy to the people of Tennessee through their elected representatives, subject to the requirements of the United States Constitution.”

Brent Leatherwood, executive director of the state GOP, said the Democrats’ language in the emailed fundraising appeal “is just the latest evidence their party has become unhinged from reality on this issue and is drifting further and further away from the values of Tennesseans.”

Still, he said in an email that the mix of polling results was a “divergence (that) comes because of the complicated language of the amendment.”

“Supporters of the amendment and the folks behind it admittedly have to wage an information-intensive campaign for it to pass.”

Supporters of Amendment One are, indeed, gearing up for a public relations fight. Brian Harris, president of Tennessee Right to Life, the state’s leading anti-abortion organization, says the goal is to raise $2.5 million.

A nonprofit corporation has been set up for fundraising and “educational” advertising that apparently has almost $250,000 on hand now, most collected at a fundraising event hosted by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey.

The separate Yes on One Ballot Committee reported in an April disclosure to the Registry of Election Finance a cash-on-hand balance of $19,849, having raised almost $60,000 and spent almost $40,000. Those figures do not include a $13,658 “in kind” contribution from Tennessee Right to Life for “salaries and wages” paid to staffers devoting time to the effort.

Knox County Right to Life gave a $2,500 direct contribution and its president, Stacy Dunn, wife of Republican state Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville, another $1,150 herself.

Vote No on One Inc., set up earlier this year to oppose passage of the amendment, reported $3,775 cash on hand in its initial report filed last month after raising $4,000 and spending $225. That does not include a $13,571 “in-kind” contribution, all but $785 coming from Tennessee Planned Parenthood organizations for what is described in the report as “services rendered.” The $785 came from the American Civil Liberties Union.