For the fourth time in seven years, the state Senate passed a constitutional amendment Wednesday to remove any guarantees for a right to an abortion within the state constitution.
“This is something that I think is a good day for the people of Tennessee to restore to the people the power of their constitution,” said Sen. Diane Black (R-Gallatin), the sponsor of the constitutional amendment. “And I’m looking forward that this will get full debate over in the House and hopefully passage there.”
Since a 2000 state Supreme Court decision struck down some abortion restrictions, the state Senate has passed a constitutional amendment similar to the one passed Wednesday every General Assembly — 2001, 2004, 2006 and now 2008.
Each time, however, that the Senate has passed the amendment, known as Senate Joint Resolution 127, it has either been defeated in a House subcommittee or not been acted upon.
When asked why this year should be any different, Black tried to show optimism: “You never know what’s going to happen.”
Yesterday, the Senate passed the amendment 23-9. All 16 Republicans supported the resolution, as well as six Democrats and one Independent.
The amendment would not ban abortions in Tennessee, but would allow the Legislature to enact “common sense protections” regarding them, such as a 48-hour waiting period prior to an abortion, proponents say.
A required 48-hour waiting period was one of the provisions struck down in 2000.
“The basic purpose of this resolution, at least in my mind, has been to restore to the Legislature a power which should be theirs and not the courts,” said Sen. Douglas Henry (D-Nashville), one of the six Democrats supporting the Republican-led effort.
Through different mechanisms Wednesday, Democrats repeatedly tried to add exceptions for rape, incest and when the life of the mother is endangered to the constitutional amendment, but were defeated each time with unanimous GOP opposition.
“To be pro-life, you do not have to be anti-victim,” said Sen. Roy Herron (D-Dresden), who voted against the constitutional amendment. “To be pro-baby, you do not have to be anti-mother.”
While some Republicans favor exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother, they countered that the amendment should not have those explicit exceptions and, if added, could cause further court action.
In a partial response last week, the Senate added a sentence to the constitutional amendment to essentially remind Tennesseans — should they ever get the chance to vote on the amendment — that the Legislature could regulate cases of rape, incest and life of the mother.
Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle (D-Memphis), who voted against the resolution, said he was not comfortable leaving that matter to future legislatures.
“I don’t know who those people are,” Kyle said on the Senate floor. “I don’t know who they are going to be. I don’t know how anyone got elected and I don’t know who they’re going to listen to. And I wasn’t elected to come up here and pass the buck to somebody in the future on this matter.”
The amendment, as passed by the Senate Wednesday, would write the following into the Tennessee Constitution: “Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion. The people retain the right through their elected state representatives and state senators to enact, amend, or repeal statutes regarding abortion, including circumstances of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest or when necessary to save the life of the mother.”
The anti-abortion amendment now heads to likely a House subcommittee, where it has met an unsuccessful fate previously.
If the full House were to approve it, both the Senate and House would have to pass it by a two-thirds majority in the next General Assembly.
If that were to occur, Tennesseans would vote up or down on the amendment in 2010.