Tennessee: House OK puts abortion measure on 2014 ballot

photo An exterior view of the Tennessee State Capitol building.

NASHVILLE - State House members today approved a referendum allowing Tennessee voters to decide in 2014 whether the state constitution protects abortion rights.

The vote was 76-18 to approve Senate Joint Resolution 127, which is intended to nullify a 2000 Tennessee Supreme Court ruling and give state lawmakers the ability to impose some restrictions on abortions allowable under federal rulings.

In the 2000 case, the state's high court ruled 4-1 that Tennessee's Constitution contains a stronger right to privacy and abortion than the U.S. Constitution. The court ruled several legislative restrictions on abortion unconstitutional.

During today's debate, some lawmakers sought to include language protecting abortion rights for rape or incest victims or those whose pregnancies endanger their lives.

Rep. Gary Odom, D-Nashville, argued the ballot referendum's wording "is going to mislead our voters because it implies those three exceptions will ultimately be available to the women of this state and that's not the case."

But House Republican Caucus Chairwoman Debra Maggart, R-Hendersonville, objected, saying, "Your language would put into jeopardy our language because of strict scrutiny [applications] the Supreme Court uses."

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The amendment was tabled, 69-29.

Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, denounced the 2000 court decision.

"Even though the word abortion is not in the constitution, [the court] found it in there after 200 years. We're putting the constitution back to where it was before the liberal Supreme Court found abortion in the constitution."

The ballot resolution will say: "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, but not limited to, circumstances of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest or when necessary to save the life of the mother."

A number of restrictions would remain off-limits to lawmakers under federal rulings.