NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Haslam says he will work this fall to pass a controversial amendment to the Tennessee Constitution that would grant state lawmakers more authority in regulating abortions.
But the Republican governor couldn't say what restrictions he thinks are appropriate for state lawmakers to consider should voters in November approve Amendment 1.
"I don't know," Haslam said. "As I understand it, basically, what it would do is just put [the state's ability to regulate abortion] back to how the law works in the United States, how the federal law works now."
If approved, the amendment would overturn a 2000 state Supreme Court ruling that the Tennessee Constitution provides greater protections on abortion than the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Roe v. Wade decision.
In that case, the state's top court struck down a law requiring hospitalization for an abortion after the first trimester of pregnancy and also directing physicians to give women state-mandated information and counseling three days before an abortion could be performed.
If approved, Amendment 1 would free legislators to require what proponents call reasonable regulations of abortion. Critics say it would free up legislators to pass oppressive or harassing laws such as requiring women seeking an abortion first to undergo transvaginal ultrasound probes.
Last year, state Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, introduced legislation that would have required women seeking abortions to have such scans and be shown a real-time image of the embryo or fetus. The bill didn't move.
Asked if he might recommend legislation including such procedures, Haslam said, "I -- we don't have any legislation that we anticipate at all."
Democratic gubernatorial candidate JohnMcKamey, of Sullivan County, whom many party insiders are backing in the August primary election, said he opposes Amendment 1.
"First of all, I don't think a bunch of men in the state Legislature should make a lot of laws determining lives and what they can do," McKamey said. "We need more women down there to make the laws."
McKamey said his wife had a serious heart defect as a result of rheumatic fever years ago.
"Her doctor, he told both of us for her not to get pregnant, simply because all the medicine she was taking to help her heart and make her live longer would probably affect the child, and secondly, she wouldn't be able to carry the child."
They never were faced with the decision, McKamey said. "But if she'd gotten pregnant we would have been forced to make it," he said. "That decision, as far as I could tell, would be best left up to her, her faith and her doctor."
In a recent Vanderbilt University poll of 1,245 registered voters, 71 percent said they opposed giving the Legislature state constitutional authority to regulate abortions, while 21 percent supported it. The poll's margin of error was 3.4 percent.
Vanderbilt political science professors say the poll results shouldn't be seen as a final picture of where Tennesseans stand with months of campaigning ahead on both sides.
Furthermore, said Vanderbilt's Dr. John Geer, the views may reflect respondents' views about government more than their thoughts about abortion.
For example, 45 percent said they saw themselves as "definitely" or "somewhat" pro-choice while 48 percent identified themselves as being "definitely" or "somewhat" pro-life.
And only 25 percent said abortion should "be legal in all cases." Fifty percent said it should be legal only in cases of rape, incest or when the mother's life is endangered. Twenty percent said abortion should be "illegal in all cases."
Haslam said while some may quibble with how the poll's question on support for Amendment No. 1 was framed, there is a need to explain what it does and what it doesn't do.
"I think it does show both the difficulty of people understanding the issue and the complexity," he added. "Just the ballot amendment itself is fairly complex in terms of what it's saying and what it's not."
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.