Constitutional Amendment on Abortion a Step Closer to Voters

The Senate on Monday approved a measure 24-8 that paves the way for a state constitutional amendment on abortion.

The proposed amendment takes aim at a Tennessee Supreme Court ruling in 2000, Planned Parenthood v. Sundquist, that said the state’s Constitution provides a stronger right to privacy than the U.S. Constitution, therefore ending any restrictions the Legislature had put on abortions before that ruling.

Advocates of the measure say the action simply puts Tennessee back into a neutral position on abortion.

The state’s action does not address Roe v. Wade, the landmark federal case that declared getting an abortion was a right under the U.S. Constitution.

The measure passed in the Senate is another step in the process leading to a general election referendum. In order to amend the Tennessee Constitution, the effort requires a majority vote in both the House and Senate in one Legislature, then a two-thirds vote by each chamber in the next Legislature. The Tennessee General Assembly approved the measure in 2009, including a 76-22 vote in the House and 23-9 in the Senate.

If a two-thirds vote occurs in the House, which is expected under the current political makeup of the chamber, it will assure the question appears on the 2014 ballot.

The resolution, SJR127, would amend Article 1 of the Tennessee Constitution.

The amendment reads:

Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion. 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.

If approved by a referendum, the resolution thus opens the door for the Legislature to put restrictions on abortions as lawmakers see fit, such as instituting waiting periods or requiring clinics to provide detailed information about the procedure. The state could impose restrictions that fall in line with the U.S. Constitution.

Senate approval did not come without debate. Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, attempted to amend the resolution with language that would protect the right to an abortion as a result of rape or incest or to save the life of the mother. Herron attempted another amendment focusing on saving the life of the mother, but both amendments were rejected.

Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, sponsored the Senate resolution and said the action “will give Tennesseans the opportunity to restore their voice in determining what state policy should be regarding common-sense protections for abortion.

“It addresses the decision of the state Supreme Court in 2000, where four of five judges removed the right of elected officials to decide what protections should be in place, working within the federal constitutional bounds set by the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Frequently in the past, the measure has failed to get out of a House subcommittee. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey expressed his pleasure with the Senate vote on Monday in a formal statement.

“For years liberal Democratic parliamentary maneuvering has thwarted passage of this resolution which has enjoyed strong support from majorities both inside and outside the Legislature,” Ramsey said.

“I am proud to be a part of the pro-life Republican majority that will finally bring an end to judicial activist usurpation and put this measure to a vote.”

Beavers said the amendments would endanger the resolution as written. Herron said even with the amendments, the referendum could still be put before the voters in 2014. Herron said he had supported efforts in the past for restrictions such as a waiting period.