Abortion foes moved toward putting the issue up for a public referendum in Tennessee as the state Senate approved a constitutional amendment that would allow more restrictions on the practice.
Senators voted 24-8 Monday night to place an amendment on the ballot that would state explicitly that abortion is not protected by the Tennessee constitution, overturning a 2000 ruling that abortion opponents say has kept the state from placing more regulations on abortion.
If the legislation, SJR127, is approved by the House, it would go before voters in the 2014 elections.
All 20 Republicans in the Senate voted for the amendment. Four Democrats also voted for the amendment, including state Sen. Douglas Henry.
“This resolution is only about letting the people decide whether they want their elected representatives to make the laws on abortion,” said state Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Juliet, the amendment’s sponsor.
The Senate spent about half an hour debating the amendment, which has come up repeatedly since the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that the state constitution offers greater protections for abortion than the U.S. constitution.
Much of that time was spent discussing a pair of changes suggested by Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, that would have explicitly protected access to abortion for women whose lives are at risk or victims of rape or incest. In such cases, the decision whether to have an abortion ought to be left to the pregnant woman and her family, he said.
“We ought not let some future legislature prohibit that family from protecting those victims,” he said.
But Beavers said the changes were unnecessary because her amendment would not in itself ban abortion. She also said the changes would delay the amendment’s final passage, because state law says any change in the wording of the amendment would start the process of altering the constitution all over again.
The vote sends the amendment to the state House of Representatives, which will also have to approve the measure by a two-thirds majority for the issue to appear on 2014 ballot. If a majority of voters who cast ballots in that year’s race for governor approve the amendment, it would then be added to the state’s constitution.
Already, supporters and opponents are gearing up for a battle at the polls.
“Decisions regarding pregnancy are perhaps the most personal decisions a woman can make,” said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Tennessee chapter. “We are building a broad-based coalition … so that when voters go to the polls in 2014 they will vote for access to health care and privacy, and against SJR127.”