Amid Abortion Protests, Tennessee Lawmakers Return For Raucous First Day

Nashville Rep. Beth Harwell is congratulated by lawmakers after being elected to a third term as House speaker. Credit: Chas Sisk

Rep. Beth Harwell is congratulated by lawmakers after her election as House speaker. Credit: Chas Sisk / WPLN

With a bang of her gavel, Rep. Beth Harwell (R-Nashville) opened the 109th General Assembly and was unanimously elected to a third term as speaker of the state House of Representatives.

The real drama was in the lobby outside the chamber, where dozens of protesters – some with signs and drums – rallied against plans to impose new restrictions on abortion. Chanting slogans such as, “Keep your laws off my body,” they sought to discourage lawmakers from pursuing regulations such as a 48-hour waiting period and tougher licensing requirements for abortion facilities.

Both are expected to be taken up in the wake of Amendment 1 to the state constitution, which Tennessee voters approved last November. That measure reversed a 2000 decision by the Tennessee Supreme Court that protected abortion rights.

Passage of the amendment frees legislators to consider renewed restrictions on abortion. But Nashville resident Rose Brannen said she hoped to send a message to lawmakers that they will be met with resistance.

“I think it lets our legislators know that there is a vocal contingent of their population that is not for this Amendment 1, and that we’re not going to sit by and let anti-choice legislation get passed through,” Brannen said.

Abortion rights activists rally outside the state capitol Tuesday on the first day of the legislative session. Credit: Emily Siner / WPLN

Abortion rights activists rally outside the state capitol Tuesday on the first day of the legislative session. Credit: Chas Sisk / WPLN

Such protests could be a regular feature of this session. Lawmakers are expected to debate a number of hot-button issues, including Common Core education standards, school vouchers and Medicaid expansion.

Women supporting abortion regulations — specifically, conservative lawmakers and lobbyists — gathered inside the capitol before the legislative session to discuss their proposals for the upcoming session. Credit: Chas Sisk / WPLN

Women supporting abortion regulations gathered inside the capitol before the legislative session to discuss their proposals for the upcoming session. Credit: Chas Sisk / WPLN

Women With Another View

Earlier in the day, a number of conservative female lawmakers and lobbyists convened inside the statehouse with the same rallying cry of protecting women, but with a very different conclusion: They said they want to see more abortion regulations this year.

One bill proposed by Sen. Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet) deals with informed consent — what a doctor has to tell a patient before she gets an abortion.

Beavers said the bill would “make sure that a woman who’s having an abortion has the same rights that every other citizen who obtains medical procedures has.”

Rep. Susan Lynn (R-Mt. Juliet) said she will soon propose a bill requiring all abortion facilities to be licensed as surgical centers. “I know it will protect the women of Tennessee,” she said.

Emily Siner contributed to this report.

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