Abortion Fight Hits Tennessee


Monday, November 25, 2013
Nov. 24, 2013 7:35 p.m. ET

The battleground over abortion is shifting to Tennessee, where campaigns are heating up on a referendum that is a year away.

The referendum, pushed by anti-abortion groups for years, would add an amendment to the state constitution stating, "Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion." The amendment would apply to all abortions, including those stemming from "circumstances of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest or when necessary to save the life of the mother."

Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey supports a state amendment pushed by anti-abortion groups.Associated Press

Anti-abortion groups launched their campaign to generate support for the referendum this month with a $250,000 fundraiser headlined by Tennessee Republican Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and a church concert by the Duggars, an Arkansas couple who have a reality television program about raising their 19 children. The state's Baptist Convention also passed a resolution urging members to "work vigorously" to pass the amendment, which will be on the Nov. 4, 2014, ballot.

The amendment—which is supported by many Republicans and Democrats in the GOP-dominated legislature—is an attempt to make Tennessee's constitution neutral on abortion, supporters say. It would give the legislature the authority to pass "common sense" limitations on abortion and "protect women's rights," said state Sen. Jim Tracy, a Republican who co-sponsored the amendment.

Mr. Ramsey called the campaign launch a "pre-emptive strike" against opponents of the amendment, led by Planned Parenthood Federation of America Inc. and the American Civil Liberties Union. These groups say the amendment will open the door to passage of laws severely limiting access to abortions.

"Their ultimate goal in Tennessee is to be able to pass any restriction or regulation on abortion that they want to," said Jeff Teague, president of Planned Parenthood of Middle and East Tennessee Inc.



Planned Parenthood and other opponents of the amendment are mounting their own campaign. "We are preparing to aggressively mobilize voters to vote no," said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee. The amendment would lead to laws placing "rigorous burdens" on women trying to get an abortion, she said.

Tennessee is one of 11 states that currently provide state constitutional protections for abortion rights, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights. In Tennessee, the state supreme court ruled that the state constitution accords women abortion rights in a 2000 decision that said several state laws restricting abortion—including two-day waiting periods after counseling before abortions can be performed—violated women's privacy rights.

If the referendum passes, the court's ruling would be negated.

The state, with 6.5 million people, has seven abortion clinics, all of them in or around Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville, according to Mr. Teague.

Anti-abortion activists have been pressing the legislature since 2001 to change the state constitution to explicitly deny that it protects abortion rights. An amendment resolution finally won overwhelming support in the last two legislatures, meeting the requirements of state law to make it on the state ballot next fall. Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, who will be up for re-election next year, supports it.

The Tennessee referendum could also be a milestone in the debate around the nation. Abortion opponents scored a legal victory last week when the U.S. Supreme Court let stand for now a Texas law requiring doctors who perform abortions to obtain admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of where the abortion takes place. If no hospital gives them privileges, they can't perform abortions. A federal judge struck down the Texas law but an appellate court ruled the law could take effect while the case is being appealed. The Supreme Court agreed.

But anti-abortion groups have also been defeated in recent years on high-profile referendums to place strict restrictions on abortion.

Voters in Albuquerque, N.M., last week rejected a ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Last fall, Florida voters rejected a state constitutional amendment that would have prohibited use of public funds for most abortions unless required by federal law.

Write to Cameron McWhirter at cameron.mcwhirter@wsj.com