NASHVILLE—Voters will decide in 2014 whether the Tennessee Constitution protects abortion rights.
The Tennessee House on Friday approved a ballot referendum that was 10 years in the making. Abortion opponents who struggled to get the measure passed erupted in applause on the House floor and galleries after the vote.
The vote was 76-18 in favor of Senate Joint Resolution 127, which is intended to nullify a 2000 Tennessee Supreme Court ruling and give state lawmakers the ability to impose some restrictions on abortions now allowable under federal law.
During debate, Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, denounced the 2000 court decision.
“Even though the word abortion is not in the constitution, [the court] found it in there after 200 years,” he said. “We’re putting the constitution back to where it was before the liberal Supreme Court found abortion in the constitution.”
In the 2000 case, the state’s high court ruled 4-1 that Tennessee’s Constitution contains a stronger right to privacy and abortion than the U.S. Constitution. The court ruled that several state restrictions on abortion were unconstitutional.
During the legislative debate, some lawmakers sought to include language in the referendum permitting abortion services for rape or incest victims or those whose pregnancies endanger their lives.
Rep. Gary Odom, D-Nashville, argued that, without that language, the referendum’s wording “is going to mislead our voters because it implies those three exceptions will ultimately be available to the women of this state, and that’s not the case.”
But House Republican Caucus Chairwoman Debra Maggart, R-Hendersonville, objected, saying, “your language would put into jeopardy our language because of strict scrutiny [applications] the Supreme Court uses.”
The amendment to add the language was tabled on a 69-29 vote.
The ballot resolution will say: “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.”
But a number of restrictions would remain off-limits to lawmakers under the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade.
Shortly after the vote, Tennessee Family Action Council President David Fowler, a former state senator who represented Hamilton County, lauded lawmakers’ action.
“In 2000, our activist state Supreme Court said there was hidden in the text of our state constitution a fundamental right to abortion and struck down as unconstitutional our state’s informed consent and waiting period laws on abortion,” he said in a statement.
State voters have a chance to “restore neutrality” to the state constitution on the issue of abortion, he said.
“Now the real campaign starts — to make sure SJR127 passes on the ballot in 2014,” Fowler said in the statement.
“Don’t be lulled into thinking it will be easy in the face of opposition from national organizations like Planned Parenthood and the ACLU.”
Jeff Teague, president of Planned Parenthood of Middle and East Tennessee, charged in his own news release that the resolution “is dangerous to health and lives of women we all know and love — our wives, daughters, sisters, friend and neighbors.”
The proposed amendment “is about banning abortion,” Teague said. “To say otherwise is insincere and, frankly, dishonest. It will allow for the gross intrusion of government into the privates lives and personal medical decisions of women in Tennessee.”
Teague said the state already restricts abortion by requiring informed consent for women and parental consent for minors and by banning later-term abortion.
“The number of abortions in Tennessee is declining — everyone agrees this is a positive trend — but SJR127 does nothing to reduce unintended pregnancies or to help eliminate the need for abortion in Tennessee,” Teague said.
“What we need are common-sense prevention measures like comprehensive sexuality education and broader access to family planning services like low-cost, affordable birth control.”
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...