Political insiders say the latest attempt to change the state’s abortion laws was born out of last year’s election.
In the final throes of the political cycle, staunchly anti-abortion Congressman Scott DesJarlais found himself engulfed in controversy over a former lover he had pressured to get an abortion.
The news dominated the final weeks of the campaign, but the first-term Republican still walked away a duly elected representative of the 4th Congressional District for the next two years. Then more news broke that he supported his ex-wife’s two abortions before the couple was married.
It took only a few weeks for Republicans pining for a chance at a seat in Washington to put political targets on DesJarlais’ back and announce they would oppose him in the primary in 2014. Among them were two state representatives plus state Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville.
Now Tracy is taking aim at abortion.
His legislation would require women looking to terminate their pregnancy to first see a real-time ultrasound of the unborn embryo or fetus in their womb. While physicians typically perform such ultrasounds to confirm the pregnancy and predict gestation, it’s been up to the woman whether she wants to see the images for herself.
Under Tracy’s legislation, a woman who refused to look at the ultrasound would have to listen to the doctor describe the scene, complete with details on the appearance of arms and legs and the development of vital organs. The bill would require women to listen to the heartbeat, if detectable, and receive a sonogram of the fetus’s image. The only exceptions would be in the case of a medical emergency or spontaneous miscarriage,
The move also builds in a 24- to 72-hour waiting period between the ultrasound and the abortion procedure, which Tracy said is important to ensure women undergoing abortions understand all of the ramifications.
“It’s a very emotional time for them and it gives them time to think about their decision. That’s the way I look at it,” he said, adding the bill has “absolutely nothing” to do with politics.
“It is me, in my heart, to inform the mother on this life-altering decision. That was it for me, and people can say what they want to, which they do, and that’s OK with me.”
The bill is part of a new wave of anti-abortion legislation tapping technology to coerce or pressure women not to terminate their pregnancy, critics say. Eight other states now have working laws that require physicians to ask women to look at their ultrasound before they can undergo an abortion, including Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and Virginia. North Carolina and Oklahoma both have similar laws tied up in court.
But House Speaker Beth Harwell — arguably the most powerful woman in the state — is no fan of the bill.
“There are probably better ways to go about making people aware of what really happens in an abortion,” she told The City Paper. “I think there are higher priorities for us when it comes to the pro-life movement, and to me that would be SJR127, which is coming up, and I would rather focus our attention there.”
SJR127 is a suggested change to the Tennessee Constitution. In 2014, voters will be asked if they want to change their guiding document so it no longer “secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion.”
That vote, and publicity over the choice, will come the same year Tracy plans to face off against DesJarlais.
The vote comes down to a referendum where a majority of voters are needed to agree to the constitutional change, giving power to elected lawmakers in what is now the Republican-dominated legislature to decide whether abortions should be legal. If the vote falls short of a majority, the current language in the constitution sticks.
The total number of abortions is down in Tennessee, according to the state Health Department. Officials tracked 12,368 abortions by state residents in 2011, the latest year with data available. That number is down by nearly 200 over 2007.
Shelby County led the state with almost 4,600 abortions in 2011. That year, Davidson County saw nearly 2,200 abortions.
Of the abortions among Tennessee residents, nearly two-thirds occur during the first eight weeks of the pregnancy, according to the state. Of those, half are performed before reaching the seven-week mark when the fetus is almost the size of a grape.
If passed, a Tennessee ultrasound law would likely face a court challenge. In 2000, the state Supreme Court struck down waiting periods for abortions and other restrictions on the basis they violated the state constitution.
While Tracy said he would proceed carefully with his bill, he said his objective isn’t to scare or shame women into deciding against the abortion — as critics charge — but said he wants patients to have all the information possible before deciding to give up on a pregnancy.
“This just gives her a little more information, in my opinion,” he said.
Tennessee currently has laws on the books to ensure women understand all their options and the gravity of the decision to have an abortion, including information on how the procedure is done, the benefits and risks, and the alternative options of parenthood and adoption. Women are required to sign off that they understand these details, as well as verify they have thought about their decision and are moving forward under their free will.
“We think it is a gross intrusion into a woman’s private medical decisions,” said Jeff Teague, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Middle and East Tennessee who has vowed to fight the bill. “It’s legislators trying to play doctor.”
Right now, women seeking abortions have the option of eight facilities across the state, including two in Nashville, one of which is a Planned Parenthood clinic. There are three others in Memphis, two in Knoxville and one in Bristol.
Doctors have yet to weigh in on the matter.
“Most physicians don’t like to be told how to practice,” said Gary Zelizer, a lobbyist for the Tennessee Medical Association, which plans to decide by the end of the month whether to take a formal position on the bill.
“They like the flexibility and, quite honestly, they have to deal with patients who are different. Patient A is different from Patient B, and don’t tell me to treat them all identical. But obviously, abortion is a different animal. Everybody understands that,” he said.