Sides gear up for November abortion battle vote in Tennessee

photo The Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville.

NASHVILLE - Voters won't decide this issue until November, but the fundraising, education and organizational battle is already in full swing over a proposed Tennessee constitutional amendment granting state lawmakers more power over abortion.

Abortion opponents began working in November and report they are about a quarter of the way toward their $2.1 million goal to support Amendment 1. They had raised $518,000 as of June 30, state campaign finance disclosures show.

Supporters of abortion rights, meanwhile, who began a little later, have raised a little over $360,000 toward their $4 million goal, according to their state disclosure report.

The amendment seeks to make the Tennessee Constitution silent on abortion. If approved by voters, it would overturn a 2000 Tennessee Supreme Court ruling declaring abortion is a "fundamental" right, thus giving state lawmakers more authority to regulate the procedure.

Brian Harris, a coordinator with the "Yes on 1" effort and president of Tennessee Right to Life, said state residents should decide the wording of their state constitution.

"Amendment 1 is over who will decide abortion policy in the state. Will it be a handful of judges or will it be the people, through their elected legislators, expressing the will through a fair debate on the floor of the Legislature?"

Jeff Teague, a director for "Vote No on One" and president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Middle and East Tennessee, countered the question belongs in the family, not the statehouse.

"I think pretty much any Tennessean is going to agree that these are private medical decisions best left to a woman in consultation with her family, her faith and her doctors and that this is no place for politicians to be involved."

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The Yes on 1 forces got a big boost in November when Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey and others joined a fundraising event that brought in an estimated $250,000. Since then the Yes on 1 side has had a host of contributors.

Two of them, commodities broker Russell Preston of Brownsville, Tenn., and CoPart Inc. Chairman Willis Johnson of Franklin, each gave $25,000, according to the state's Registry of Election Finance. A number of small Protestant church congregations and local Knights of Columbus, among others, have given smaller amounts.

So far, the Vote No on One group has raised most of its money from Planned Parenthood groups inside and outside Tennessee. Planned Parenthood of Middle and East Tennessee gave $189,500 and Planned Parenthood Advocates Midsouth (Memphis) gave $25,000. Other contributions have come from groups in the Northwest, Massachusetts, Kansas and the Midwest.

The organizations provide reproductive health services, including abortion, as well as maternal and child health services.

Harris attacked the groups' contributions.

"They have a product that they market and sell. and that's the killing of unborn children," he said.

Other leaders in the Yes movement, like David Fowler, president of Family Action Council of Tennessee and a former Republican state senator from Signal Mountain, claim Tennessee has become a "destination state" for women seeking abortions.

He said the 2000 state ruling disallowed required waiting periods and "informed consent." Pro-life groups also want stricter regulation of abortion providers, especially for services not provided by ambulatory surgical centers.

Teague said Planned Parenthood groups support Vote No because abortion opponents' goal is to create so many obstacles that abortion "is technically legal but it is ... practically impossible to access services."

He said such restrictions hit mostly poor women who can't afford to travel to another state for the procedure.

Both sides also have begun organizing and outreach and training volunteers. The Tennessee Democratic Party, which opposes the amendment, has hired someone to direct their effort.

Fowler and Teague said they also see door-to-door canvassing, phone banking, television advertising and direct-mail campaigns this fall.

Vote Yes proponents, such as Ramsey, acknowledge advocates have their work cut out for the. A recent Vanderbilt University poll found only 23 percent of respondents wanted to give the state Legislature "more power to regulate abortions." At the same time, 48 percent considered themselves "pro-life," while 45 percent were "pro-choice."

Both sides say the fight is coming to Southeast Tennessee.

"We believe these decisions are personal and private," said Sandy Lusk of Signal Mountain, the state Democratic Party's East Tennessee regional vice chairman. "Family planning should not be made up by [legislators] like [state Sen.] Stacey Campfield, who knows nothing about the issues and doesn't even have kids or a wife."

Pat Lindley, former executive director of the pro-life group Choices Chattanooga, said the issue "keeps getting miscast."

"It's really not nearly as complex as it sounds. It's simply restoring the power to the Tennessee state Legislature to carry out the will of the people."

Staff writer David Cobb contributed to this report.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550.

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