NASHVILLE - Legislation that would let voters decide whether to strip the Tennessee Constitution of any language protecting the right to an abortion cleared a key House hurdle Tuesday for the first time in the measure's seven-year history.
Health and Human Resources Committee members approved Senate Joint Resolution 127 on a 20-7 vote, drawing cheers from anti-abortion advocates watching the committee's actions.
"This will bring the Constitution of the state of Tennessee back to neutrality regarding abortion," the House sponsor, Rep. Debra Maggart, R-Hendersonville, told committee members in presenting the bill.
Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga and a registered nurse, passionately objected to the resolution and told committee colleagues that "it disturbs me that we spend this much energy on something we can't prevent. If we reverse Roe v. Wade tomorrow, it will not stop abortions; if we amend our Constitution, it will not stop abortions."
The measure now must clear the House Calendar and Rules Committee before it can go to the House floor for a vote.
However, attempts may be made to send it to the House Finance Committee because, while the measure allows the Secretary of State to meet notification requires via the Internet, some lawmakers say it will require $20,000 in state expenditures to notify the public in newspaper advertisements.
Should the measure, which already passed by the Senate, clear the full House, it would have to be approved by a two-thirds majority in the next General Assembly meeting in 2011 and 2012 before going to voters on the 2014 ballot.
The resolution seeks to overturn a 2000 Tennessee Supreme Court decision that declared abortion a "fundamental" right under the state Constitution. Abortion foes have pushed SJR 127 ever since. The resolution traditionally has passed the Senate but was blocked in the House under the leadership of then-Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington.
"It's just a great day," said former Sen. David Fowler, R-Signal Mountain, the original sponsor of the resolution, who saw the vote as a "great step."
If the Constitution is changed, said Mr. Fowler, who now heads the Family Action Council of Tennessee, it will let state lawmakers pass what proponents call "common sense" restrictions - 48-hour waiting periods on women seeking abortions and "informed consent" requirements that direct they be given medical information about abortions.
It also would give state lawmakers a free hand if the U.S. Supreme Court ever reversed or substantially changed the landmark Roe v. Wade decision.
During the committee meeting, House Minority Leader Gary Odom, D-Nashville, unsuccessfully sought to amend the resolution to make exceptions in cases involving rape, incest or to save the life of a mother. The amendment also would have banned public funding of abortions and a late-term abortion procedure known as "partial-birth" abortion. It was tabled on a 16-11 vote.
During debate on the resolution, Rep. Favors, who noted she has been in health care for 40 years, said, "I was there when the women came in ... dead on arrival or hemorrhaging." She called the resolution a "political ploy."
Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, and Rep. Jim Cobb, R-Spring City, voted for the resolution. Rep. Favors voted no.
"I respect her opinion," Rep. Dean said. "I have my position. And my position is in line with the wishes of my constituency."