The next general election may be exactly one year away, but the upcoming battle over the future of abortion in Tennessee is getting started today.
Reality television show stars Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, along with their 19 children and three grandchildren, will visit a Madison church tonight to encourage an expected audience of 3,000 to vote in favor of Amendment 1 next Nov. 4. The proposed constitutional amendment would give lawmakers more authority to regulate and restrict abortions.
At a separate event tonight, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, a Republican from Blountville, will launch the "Yes on 1" campaign with a reception and dinner at the Marriott at Vanderbilt. The campaign has just hired an experienced political fundraiser and a veteran campaign manager and expects to raise more than $250,000 at the kickoff event.
"Now that our time has come, we're not going to take anything for granted," said Brian Harris, president of Tennessee Right to Life, which worked for more than a decade to get the measure on the 2014 ballot. "We're going to do the utmost to see that this amendment is passed."
It will be up to Tennessee voters to decide whether the state's constitution will, for the first time, specifically address abortion. The referendum would add this language: "Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion."
The wording could pave the way for lawmakers to enact abortion restrictions that have been previously ruled out of bounds under the constitution's strong privacy protections.
"I think it's going to be a fight, that's for sure," said Jeff Teague, the president of Planned Parenthood of Middle and East Tennessee, one of the chief organizers of the yet-to-be-launched campaign against the measure. "The fact that the other side is already kicking off their effort so early is a (recognition) on their part (that) it's going to be a fight."
The effort to defeat the measure, however, has not been dormant. Planned Parenthood affiliates in Tennessee and the American Civil Liberties Union have conducted polling and focus groups, secured commitments for donations and begun working with local and national groups to get organized and develop a plan.
The two groups were behind the original lawsuit challenging abortion regulations in Tennessee in the 1990s. At the time, Tennessee had some of the strictest abortion rules in the country. They included a requirement that doctors use materials created by the state to counsel women seeking abortions, a mandatory two-day waiting period after the counseling and a requirement that second-trimester abortions be performed in hospitals rather than outpatient clinics.
In 2000, the Tennessee Supreme Court struck down those regulations and ruled that women have a fundamental right to abortion in Tennessee.
"A woman's right to terminate her pregnancy is a vital part of the right to privacy guaranteed by the Tennessee Constitution," the opinion said.
Trenches set up
Proponents view the upcoming year as critical to defending those hard-won abortion rights.
"The clear goal of this ballot initiative is to make abortion difficult to access or unavailable in Tennessee," said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of ACLU Tennessee. "We're confident when the public understands what this ballot initiative is about, they will vote no. Tennesseans want their privacy and understand that this ballot initiative takes away that privacy."
Since the state Supreme Court decision, pro-life groups have been working to get the proposed amendment before voters. To get a referendum on the state ballot, the groups first had to wait until the legislature had enough supportive lawmakers in office.Then, according to state rules, the measure had to be approved twice in separate years, which eventually happened in 2009 and 2011.
Jim Bob Duggar and his family — stars of the reality TLC network program "19 Kids and Counting" — will perform a concert, sign books and speak about their support of Amendment 1 when they visit Cornerstone Church in Madison. The Heartbeats for Life event will raise money for Heartbeat Haven Pregnancy Resource Center in Lafayette, Tenn., which counsels and provides resources to pregnant women and women who have had abortions in the past. Joining them will be Alveda King, niece of the late Martin Luther King Jr., an outspoken opponent of abortion.
"I really believe a lot of Christians have sat on the sidelines and not gotten involved in politics in the past and not bothered to vote," said Duggar, a former Arkansas state representative. "There is a whole sleeping giant of Christians out there. A lot of people in Tennessee don't realize that because of the Supreme Court decision back in 2000, they wiped out almost every regulation and state law that regulated abortions."
TN's power debated
That message — that Tennessee lawmakers lack the ability to regulate abortion — is disputed by pro-choice advocates, who point to a series of existing state abortion restrictions.
Among them: Tennessee requires minors to obtain the consent of one parent before having an abortion and requires abortion clinic waiting rooms to post signs "in 40 pt. Arial font" informing patients that it is illegal for anyone to coerce a woman into an abortion. Last year, lawmakers passed the "Life Defense Act of 2012," which requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital — a law that one Knoxville abortion clinic cited as forcing its closure. In addition, Tennessee halted funding for Planned Parenthood last year, redirecting it to other clinics.
"It's just false to say our legislature cannot pass laws," Weinberg said. "It's misleading and not true. Proponents of the amendment have attempted to hide the true nature of this initiative by couching it in language, saying there are no state laws regulating abortion when the reality is the Tennessee Legislature is able to pass legislation as they have for some years, and right now there are numerous laws on the books regulating abortion in Tennessee."
An open invitation?
While abortion restrictions do exist, the Tennessee constitution bars other laws that neighboring states have enacted, including waiting periods, bans on later trimester abortions and required ultrasounds.
Those added restrictions have led more women from other states to come to Tennessee to have abortions, a Tennessean special report in May 2012 found. More than 1 in 4 abortions in Tennessee were sought by women from out of state, according to an analysis of abortion data.
Anti-abortion activists say that voters don't want Tennessee to be known for its lack of abortion regulations. The Yes on 1 campaign website posts a large illustration of a highway welcome sign with the words "The Volunteer State welcomes you" inside the state map. Underneath, it says "an abortion destination?"
The Yes on 1 campaign has hired Tom Perdue as its campaign manager. Perdue previously ran the campaigns of former Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist and Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss, both Republicans. Rachell Barrett, who worked on the Mitt Romney campaign and has organized events for Tennessee Republicans, is the campaign's fundraiser.
Tennessee Right to Life's Harris noted that the campaign is nonpartisan and seeks to work with Democrats as well as Republicans.
But Roy Herron, chairman of the Tennessee Democratic Party, said there are clear partisan lines shaping the debate over the measure.
While in the state Senate, Herron offered two amendments to the referendum that would have added exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother.
The measures were voted down by Senate Republicans, he said.
"When I speak now and talk about the Republican war on women, this is one of the first things I talk about," Herron said. "While the language is purposefully confusing at best, and I feel intentionally misleading, there is no question but that this amendment would strip every woman of any state constitutional protection to save her life."