This week marks the 35th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, in which the court ruled that anti-abortion laws violate citizens' constitutional right to privacy.
Coincidentally, the 105th Tennessee General Assembly convened in Nashville earlier this month, making immediate progress on a proposed amendment to the state constitution that could limit abortion rights. It passed the Senate Judiciary Committee 6-2, with Memphis Democrats Jim Kyle and Beverly Marrero providing the nays.
The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that the state constitution protects abortion rights, thus limiting the power of any future Supreme Court reversal to change abortion law in Tennessee.
Christie Petrone, director of community affairs for the regional Planned Parenthood, follows developments in abortion law in the state and explains the paradox of local abortion rights.
"The women of Tennessee have greater protection, from our constitution, than a lot of other states. Our protection goes beyond Roe v. Wade. If the Roe v. Wade decision were overturned, abortion would immediately become illegal in many states," she says. "But we face more anti-choice legislation here than other states. This amendment is an arbitrary attempt to chip away at Roe v. Wade."
In what would amount to a reversal of the 2000 ruling, the proposed amendment says that the state constitution provides neither protection for abortion rights nor funding for the procedure.
"If this amendment passes, it sets up the system to allow legislators to ban abortion," Petrone explains. "Right now, they can't."
Amendment supporters, including sponsor Diane Black, a Republican senator from Gallatin, say that the language could lead the way for legal restrictions on abortions without legislating an abortion ban.
Under the amendement, women seeking an abortion would have to wait 48 hours for a "period of reflection." Clinics would be permitted to perform abortions only in the first trimester of a pregnancy, while abortions later in the pregnancy would have to take place in a hospital. Abortion providers would be legally bound to present detailed descriptions of the process to women seeking the procedure.
"This is a legislative tactic to take private decision making away from women," Petrone says. "The decision to have an abortion is a private one that should be made between a woman and a doctor, not a woman and her legislator."
The proposed amendment still has a long way to go. It must pass through the full Senate and House of Representatives — it failed in the House in 2006 — before requiring approval of two thirds of legislators in the next General Assembly. Tennessee citizens would vote on its inclusion in the constitution in 2010.