CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Activists on both sides of the abortion debate are already gearing up for a big fight in Tennessee this fall, preparing to pour millions of dollars into a campaign regarding an abortion-related ballot measure up for consideration in November. The issue at hand, which is related to one paragraph in Tennessee’s constitution, isn’t necessarily on most Americans’ radars. But the outcome of that fight could actually have big implications for women living in other states.
Essentially, when voters in Tennessee cast their ballots on Amendment 1, they’ll be deciding whether to give their state the power to restrict abortion more stringently than it currently does. Thanks to a 2000 Tennessee Supreme Court ruling that defined abortion as a “fundamental” right, the state’s constitution actually has even broader protections for reproductive rights than the U.S. Constitution does. But Amendment 1 would strip out that proactive language and allow lawmakers to enact more hurdles to the medical procedure, like mandatory waiting periods and forced counseling requirements, that are currently considered to be unconstitutional.
The “Yes on 1” campaign is trying to raise $2.1 million to ensure the ballot initiative will pass, saying that it’s important to allow elected officials to determine state laws related to abortion. They’ve even enlisted Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, who star in the TLC reality show “19 Kids and Counting,” to drum up public support for Amendment 1. Meanwhile, reproductive rights advocates are hoping to raise twice that much to defeat Amendment 1, making the argument that the campaign for the measure is based on an entirely misleading premise.
“Anti-choice members of the General Assembly claim that abortion is completely unregulated in Tennessee and argue that the amendment is necessary in order for them to place restrictions on or regulate access to abortion. However, the Assembly has been passing laws for years that do just that,” Planned Parenthood of Middle and East Tennessee notes on its site, pointing out that lawmakers have already imposed restrictions like abortion insurance bans and parental consent laws. And in general, abortion is a medical procedure that’s already highly regulated.
Ultimately, if Amendment 1 passes, it threatens to make it even more difficult to get an abortion in an area of the country where women’s reproductive rights are already under siege. Thanks to harsh restrictions on abortions that are forcing clinics out of business, a broad swath of the South is losing access to reproductive heath facilities altogether. Right now, Tennessee remains an option for women in neighboring states who are running out of other choices.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in four abortions performed in Tennessee are sought by a resident of a different state. The “Yes On 1″ campaign touts that statistic as evidence that the state is becoming ripe for “abortion tourism,” arguing that it points to the need for additional regulation. But reproductive rights advocates have a very different take on the issue — they say that women are crossing the border in Tennessee because it’s too hard to get an abortion in their own states, and enacting additional barriers in Tennessee will make a bad situation even worse.
“Abortion rights in the South are going away, and it’s tragic,” Jeff Teague, the president of Planned Parenthood of Middle and East Tennessee, told the Tennessean. “We’re creating a situation where women only in certain parts of the country have access. If the abortion amendment passes, we’re likely to see similar rights disappearing here.”
Over the past several years, as states have passed a record-breaking number of restrictions on abortion, there’s been an increase in the number of women crossing state lines to have the medical procedure. Clinic closures obviously send women farther in search of a facility where they can get an abortion, but they’re not the only type of situation in which women may choose to go to a different state. The type of requirements that Amendment 1 would allow Tennessee to enact, like forced waiting periods, make it more difficult for women to get an abortion because they often have to make multiple trips to a clinic. Some women choose to circumvent that situation by going to a state where there are fewer hoops to jump through.
So if the “Yes On 1″ campaign is ultimately successful, the new policty won’t just affect the women who live in Tennessee. It will also mean that the people in Alabama and Mississippi, where abortion clinics are dwindling, may have fewer places to turn to exercise their right to choose. It will further the emerging trend in the South that’s making abortion nearly impossible to get. And it will give the anti-choice ammunition for their claim that abortion isn’t really a constitutionally protected right.
So far, the concept behind Amendment 1 doesn’t appear to be very popular with the public. According to a recent Vanderbilt University poll, an overwhelming 71 percent of Tennessee voters don’t agree that the legislature should have more authority to restrict abortions. Even the majority of Republican voters are opposed to that concept. However, Vanderbilt researchers point out that doesn’t necessarily translate to a clear defeat for the ballot measure, depending on whether voters are swayed by the “Yes On 1″ campaign materials.