In Looming Fight Over Tennessee Abortion Laws, Both Sides Are Approaching Cautiously

Several dozen people come inside the Capitol to protest the legislature's proposed abortion regulations. Credit: Chas Sisk / WPLN

Several dozen people come inside the Capitol to protest the legislature’s proposed abortion regulations. Credit: Chas Sisk / WPLN

After an impassioned campaign over Amendment 1, groups on both sides of Tennessee’s abortion debate are surprisingly practical about what they can accomplish in the legislature this year.

Tennessee voters approved a constitutional amendment in November, giving lawmakers more power to pass abortion regulations. On the first day of the legislative session Tuesday, hundreds of protesters rallied outside the statehouse, decrying the amendment and calling for legislators to respect abortion rights.

But Tennessee’s legislature is overwhelmingly conservative this year. Even abortion rights lobbyists from the ACLU and Planned Parenthood say they don’t expect to stop lawmakers from passing new regulations this year.

The fight now is over what’s inside the laws they pass, says Jeff Teague, head of Planned Parenthood of Middle Tennessee.

“We’re going to work really hard and really aggressively to make sure that those pieces of legislation are as least harmful to women as possible,” he says.

Teague’s example: A potential mandatory waiting period law, which would dictate how long women have to wait between talking to a doctor and getting an abortion.

“Are you saying a 24-hour waiting period, or are you saying a 72-hour waiting period?” Teague says. “The devil is in the details.”

Support From The Court

Even with enough support to pass strict abortion regulations, conservative lobbyists are also proceeding cautiously: They’re wary of lawsuits.

David Fowler with the Family Action of Tennessee points to a bill that would require doctors to show women ultrasounds of their fetus.

“Would I be upset or angry if they passed one?” he says. “The answer would be no.”

But Fowler is not going to encourage lawmakers to pass it, he says, because a similar law in North Carolina was recently struck down in federal court. After fighting so long for Amendment 1, “we ought not do things that can’t go into force for another three or four years while it winds its way through a federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals,” he says.

Lawmakers have so far also talked about two other abortion regulations: one dealing with informed consent, or what doctors should tell women before an abortion; and one that would require all abortion facilities should be licensed as surgical centers.

Brain Harris, head of Tennessee Right To Life, recently told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that he appreciates the “pro-life determination” of the ultrasound bill, but “the priorities are informed consent, waiting periods and regulation of abortion facilities.”

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