Tennessee Just Became The Next Abortion Rights Battleground

CREDIT: AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

Signs outside a polling place support different opinions on Amendment 1

Voters in Tennessee narrowly approved a ballot initiative on Tuesday night that rolls back constitutional protections for abortion, opening the door for their lawmakers to impose additional restrictions on the procedure. While the passage of Amendment 1 doesn’t have immediate ramifications, residents of the state will likely start feeling its effects soon enough.

Amendment 1 will amend language in Tennessee’s constitution so that abortion is no longer defined as a “fundamental” right. That effectively reverses a 2000 Tennessee Supreme Court ruling that established broad protections for reproductive rights, raising the bar for the types of barriers to abortion that the state was allowed to enact.

Now, a paragraph will be added to Tennessee’s constitution to explicitly state that “nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion” and “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.”

So next session, state lawmakers will be free to pass the types of legislation — like mandatory waiting periods and forced ultrasounds — that used to be out of reach to them. Plus, there are plenty of abortion restrictions that weren’t covered in the scope of the 2000 court ruling. The legislature may be galvanized by the fact that voters just endorsed Amendment 1 to go ahead and pass some of those, too.

“There’s a laundry list of abortion restrictions that the Tennessee legislature could pursue in 2015,” Elizabeth Nash, the states issue manager at the Guttmacher Institute, told ThinkProgress. “Certainly with this amendment approved by the voters, the argument can be made that now they can really go forth and wreak havoc on abortion access in Tennessee.”

Abortion opponents are eager for lawmakers to get started. Supporters of Amendment 1 have already been laying the groundwork to push for tighter regulation of abortion clinics, a strategy that has been particularly successful in the South. They want lawmakers to pass a law requiring abortion clinics to meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers, something that can force clinics out of businesses by requiring them to make costly renovations they simply can’t afford.

David Fowler, a former state senator who first proposed a version of Amendment One years ago, told Nashville Public Radio that he’s expecting the legislature to consider a 48-hour waiting period for women who want to have an abortion. Nash said she wouldn’t be surprised if lawmakers introduce an even more extended 72-hour waiting period, a policy that’s currently in place in Missouri, Utah, and South Dakota.

Essentially, Tennessee lawmakers may rush to catch up with the other states in the region, which have approved an increasing number of harsh restrictions on abortion over the past several years. For instance, according to Nash, every single state that borders Tennessee already has a waiting period and abortion counseling requirements in place. Many of them also have 20-week bans.

“Legislatures across the region are doing everything in their power to make it virtually impossible for women to access safe and legal abortion,” Jeff Teague, the president of Planned Parenthood of Middle and East Tennessee and one of the leaders of the Vote No on 1 campaign, told ThinkProgress. “Now that they’ve been granted unlimited authority here, we are expecting some of the same.”

That legislative landscape illustrates why the consequences of Amendment 1 could end up extending beyond Tennessee.

With such limited options in the region, Tennessee has remained an option for women facing more stringent restrictions in neighboring states. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in four of the abortions performed in Tennessee are sought by someone who lives in a different state — a statistic that supporters of the ballot initiative used to argue that the state needs to crack down on “abortion tourism.” Reproductive rights proponents have interpreted that data in a different way, arguing that women in the area are running out of choices.

“Women in an entire region of the country are losing their access… and it’s a huge concern,” Teague said.

Plus, aside from the impending anti-abortion laws looming in Tennessee, the passage of Amendment 1 may help this kind of strategy pick up momentum in other states with specific protections for abortion. As a ballot initiative tactic, Amendment 1 now stands in contrast to the failed effort to legalize fetal personhood. Other states may look to try something similar and roll back their own constitutional protections.

Despite the setback, the reproductive rights community in Tennessee is ultimately planning on standing its ground. Teague pointed out that the vote was very close. And the attention to the issue gave advocates a rare opportunity to engage in thoughtful conversations about abortion with state residents who don’t often have those discussions.

“We’re really proud of where we’ve come,” Teague said. “There wasn’t much of an infrastructure in the state working to defend reproductive rights, and now we have a really strong coalition of groups and clergy and volunteers to engage and activate — and hopefully have as much impact on any future attempts to limit safe, legal abortion as we can.”