How Tennessee Awakened A New Wave Of Pro-Choice Activism

Tennessee activists rallying on the first day of the 2015 legislative session CREDIT: COURTESY OF GLORIA JOHNSON
Tennessee activists rallying on the first day of the 2015 legislative session CREDIT: COURTESY OF GLORIA JOHNSON

Tennessee is shaping up to be the next battleground for reproductive rights, thanks to the passage of a ballot initiative that gives state lawmakers more power to restrict abortion. But pro-choice activists in the state aren’t going to go down without a fight.

Thanks to a 2000 Tennessee Supreme Court ruling, the state used to have broad protections for reproductive rights, which prevented lawmakers from enacting certain restrictions like mandatory waiting periods or forced ultrasound laws. That helped Tennessee residents avoid the harsh anti-abortion laws that are becoming common throughout the surrounding region.

But Amendment 1 reversed the 2000 ruling, adding a section to Tennessee’s constitution explicitly stating that “nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion.” Now, with the approval of the ballot initiative, lawmakers can really “go forth and wreak havoc on abortion access in Tennessee,” according to Elizabeth Nash, the states issues manager at the Guttmacher Institute.

There are a lot of people who are going to be heavily involved in this movement.

The legislature has already started to introduce anti-abortion bills, including some measures that were in place before the 2000 Supreme Court decision. GOP lawmakers have pledged their support for legislation to tighten regulations on abortion clinics, require women to undergo an ultrasound before an abortion regardless of the doctor’s opinion of whether it’s necessary, and require doctors to give abortion patients biased and medically inaccurate information about the risks of the procedure.


Activists in the state, however, want lawmakers to know they’re paying attention. This week, as the legislature returned for the first day of its 2015 session, hundreds of voters rallied to send a clear message to their elected officials: Don’t pass more restrictions on abortion rights. The so-called “Women’s March on Nashville” attracted attention from all across the country as supporters followed along on Twitter.

According to Gloria Johnson, the activist who organized the march, between 600 and 800 people felt strongly enough about the issue to show up at the state capitol in 30 degree weather on a workday. “I think it’s an indication there are a lot of people who are going to be heavily involved in this movement,” she told ThinkProgress.

CREDIT: Courtesy of Gloria Johnson
CREDIT: Courtesy of Gloria Johnson

Sixty-four-year-old Betsy Speed, for instance, joined the protest because she said she wants to secure reproductive rights for her granddaughters’ generation. “We also stood up for our rights 40 years ago. Why do we have to do it again? It’s hard to understand,” Speed told the Tennessean. “But I have young granddaughters, and I’m here for them.”

Johnson said that, even though Amendment 1 passed, there are plenty of people like Speed who are unhappy about it. She pointed out that the turnout for the midterm elections was particularly low, and the majority of voters in the state — an estimated 70 percent — didn’t actually cast their ballots in November. “I’m sure there are a lot of people kicking themselves for not voting,” she said.

Now, she thinks the legislature’s push to restrict abortion will motivate plenty of those people to fight back this year. After Tuesday’s rally, she said she immediately started getting emails asking her about potential next steps for activism. She’s asking concerned voters to build relationships with their local representatives and show up in their offices to talk about why Tennessee doesn’t need any more anti-abortion bills.

“People are energized. Women are angry. There’s no question about it,” Johnson said.

In addition to abortion rights issues, left-wing activists in the state have broadened their message to demand other policies to help advance women’s economic security, like paid maternity leave and pay equity. And they’ve united around calls to accept Obamacare’s optional Medicaid expansion, a policy that Gov. Bill Haslam (R) has already thrown his support behind.

People are energized. Women are angry.

The growing wave of activism builds on the work that progressive advocates have been doing in Tennessee for the past several years. A network of religious leaders spent much of 2014 speaking out against Amendment 1 and laying the groundwork for a progressive faith voice throughout the state. And SisterReach, a reproductive justice organization in the state that focuses on issues pertaining to communities of color, has been pushing toward expanding comprehensive sex ed resources for Tennessee’s youth.


Reproductive rights supporters like Planned Parenthood and the ACLU know it’s practically inevitable that Tennessee will pass at least some abortion restrictions this year. Nonetheless, according to Nashville Public Radio, they’re still somewhat optimistic about being able to compromise with GOP lawmakers who may be wary to overstep their legal bounds. For instance, although many conservative states are expected to push the limits this year and pass increasingly stringent abortion restrictions, like 72-hour waiting periods, activists hope they’ll be able to pressure the legislature to compromise with a 24-hour waiting period instead.

And there are other areas for optimism, too. Despite the fact that the legislature is overwhelmingly GOP-controlled, Johnson is happy about the fact that the Tennessee Democratic Party just elected a female chair.

“Women’s voices are loud and strong,” she said. “I’m predicting a whole lot of women running for office in 2016.”