Tennessee faces challenge to 'abortion destination' reputation

A ballot measure in Tennessee states that nothing in the state constitution “secures or protects” a woman’s right to an abortion, which, if approved, would allow the Republican-led legislature to impose strictures on the procedure.

Doug Strickland/Chattanooga Times Free Press/AP
Wendi Morgan wears a "Yes on 1" t-shirt at a Hamilton County Commission Meeting in Chattanooga, Tenn. The commission passed a resolution in support of Tennessee Amendment 1, an anti-abortion measure on the ballot in November.

Tennessee’s court-protected reputation as an uncomplicated place to get an abortion will see a major challenge on Election Day, as anti-abortion advocates vow to pull the state’s abortion rules back in line with the rest of the conservative Bible Belt.

Amendment 1 on the ballot will in essence deflate a 2000 Tennessee Supreme Court ruling that found that a woman’s right to have an abortion is tied to her right to privacy. The upshot is that, unlike in most states, women seeking an abortion in Tennessee have no waiting period and need no special counseling. Nearly a quarter of women who receive abortions in the state live somewhere else.

The amendment on the ballot states that nothing in the Tennessee Constitution “secures or protects” a woman’s right to an abortion, which, if approved, would in turn allow its Republican-led legislature to impose strictures on the procedure.

“Should Tennessee be the abortion capital of the Bible Belt?” asked Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Nashville-based Southern Baptist Convention, in a recent Twitter post.

In a statement, Planned Parenthood, a major abortion provider, retorts that “Tennessee will be the next battleground in the war on women and their ability to access safe, legal abortion.” Amendment 1, the group says, is an “unprecedented attack” on state law and personal privacy.

Tennessee’s ballot question is one of three abortion-related issues on ballots on Election Day.

Nebraska and Colorado are asking voters whether they want to approve so-called “personhood” amendments that would extent constitutional protections to a fetus, in turn making most abortions a form of murder. Similar ballots have failed in the past, most notably in Mississippi in 2012.

The gambit to restrict abortion in Tennessee also comes as the federal judiciary is trying to gauge the legal limits of a slew of new laws that are forcing abortion clinics from Texas to Ohio to close.

At issue are conservative states, most in the South and Midwest, testing the limits of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision by imposing tougher standards on clinics in order to both protect women’s health and reduce the number of abortions.

At stake for courts is whether women have the right to have an abortion in-state, and what distance a woman has to travel to a clinic before her rights are curtailed. A federal court struck down parts of such a law in Texas last month, allowing some clinics that were slated to close, to remain open.

Meanwhile, new hospital-admitting rules for abortion clinics in Ohio have reduced the total number of clinics from 13 to 8 in the past few months. By the end of the month, Cincinnati, for one, may no longer have a clinic.

That momentum is at play in Tennessee as well, as abortion advocates face tough political hurdles. Republican Gov. Bill Haslam is facing a neophyte Democratic challenger – construction worker Charles Brown – which is likely to depress liberal, and thus pro-abortion, turnout at the polls.

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