By Travis Loller, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee voters will have a chance this November to decide whether they want to give the state Legislature more power to regulate abortions.
In 2000, the Tennessee Supreme Court struck down laws requiring a two-day waiting period and mandatory physician-only counseling and preventing second-trimester abortions from taking place anywhere but in a hospital.
The court wrote that because the provisions were not narrowly tailored to promote maternal health, they violated a woman’s fundamental right to privacy as guaranteed in the Tennessee Constitution.
Abortion opponents immediately began planning to change the Constitution. The result is an amendment that reads, in part, “Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion.” It will be before voters on Nov. 4.
Brian Harris, president of Tennessee Right to Life, has been working to overturn the Supreme Court’s 2000 decision for the past 14 years.
“Really, the success of Amendment 1 is a credit and testimony to long years of hard work, sacrificial giving and prayers by the pro-life citizens of a pro-life state,” he said.
From Harris’ perspective, the 2000 decision has taken away the people’s right to weigh in on the abortion issue through their elected representatives.
He believes that if the amendment fails, Tennessee’s remaining abortion restrictions will be challenged in court and struck down. And he believes it will open the way for additional pro-abortion rulings and could lead to taxpayer funding of abortions in Tennessee.
Jeff Teague, president and CEO at Planned Parenthood of Middle and East Tennessee, disagrees.
“I don’t think there’s any likelihood that would happen,” he said, noting that some abortion restrictions have been in place for years. Instead, he warns of a slippery slope in the opposite direction.
“If we grant the General Assembly unlimited constitutional authority to be able to pass any regulation or restriction, it’s going to create a situation, we’re afraid, where abortion is technically legal in Tennessee, but it is virtually impossible for women here to obtain safe, legal abortions.”
Teague points to neighboring states that have enacted severe restrictions on abortion as an example of what could happen here. In Mississippi, for example, the state’s only abortion clinic faces closure over a 2012 state law that is currently in the appeals process.
Abortion opponents say Tennessee should be more like its neighbors. Citing Tennessee Department of Health statistics that in 2013, about 23 percent of the abortions performed in Tennessee were on women from other states, they argue that women are flocking here because of the state’s relatively easy access to abortions.
But a closer review of the numbers makes it seem more likely that the women coming to Tennessee for abortions are the same women who come to Tennessee to shop, those living in small towns and suburbs near larger Tennessee border cities.
In 2000, the number of out-of-state women who got abortions in Tennessee was 3,225. The Supreme Court’s ruling did not come until mid-September of that year. Thirteen years later, the number of out-of-state women getting abortions in Tennessee had risen by just 20 to 3,245.
Even taking into account the small rise in out-of-state women, the total number of abortions in Tennessee has dropped since 2000 from 17,479 to 14,216 in 2013, a decrease of about 19 percent.
While the state Supreme Court’s 2000 decision has curtailed the legislature’s ability to regulate abortion, it has not shut down that ability entirely. For example, in 2012 the General Assembly enacted a requirement for physicians performing abortions to hold hospital privileges in either the home county of the woman seeking an abortion or an adjacent county.
The law caused two Tennessee clinics that provided abortion services to close, Teague said.
Tennessee also has a law requiring minors to obtain parental consent before an abortion, among other restrictions.
Abortion opponents would like to put in place a requirement that the offices of private physicians providing first-trimester abortions be licensed and inspected in the same manner as outpatient surgical centers. While it may seem like a common-sense rule, a law requiring licenses for physicians providing a “substantial number” of first-trimester abortions was struck down in 2002.
That’s because the rule was an exception that did not apply to other private physicians who provided surgical services in their offices.
The state Appeals Court wrote that there was “no medical justification for treating abortions differently from other medical procedures of similar complexity and risk.” It noted that a tonsillectomy “carries a risk of death twice as high as that of a legal abortion.”
In the run-up to the Nov. 4 election, both sides are campaigning hard, bringing out celebrities and religious leaders and hosting rallies and concerts.