Poll finds most Hamilton County voters support access to abortion without government restrictions

Most Hamilton County voters believe abortion should be a decision between a between a woman and her doctor, with no government restrictions, according to a recent poll conducted just months after a Tennessee law banning the procedure in nearly all circumstances went into effect.

The vast majority of voters favor abortion policy that is more permissive than what is currently allowed under the Tennessee law, among the most restrictive in the nation.

The poll -- conducted in person by Chattanooga Times Free Press reporters around the county during early voting and on Election Day, Nov. 8 -- found a higher rate of support for abortion rights than has been found in polling of Tennesseans in general, though the value of direct comparisons is limited on a subject that is famously fraught to poll.

The Times Free Press poll's results are, however, consistent with nationwide surveys finding heightened public sentiment for abortion rights after a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June that eliminated the constitutional right to abortion and unleashed a wave of state laws across the nation restricting abortions with few, if any, exceptions.

Some Tennessee lawmakers who voted for the law have discussed amending it to address concerns of medical professionals who see the law as putting them at significant legal risk for providing standard life-saving care.

But anti-abortion advocates in the state have encouraged the lawmakers not to touch a law they regard as a nationwide model for protecting the unborn.

"We are very proud to be an abortion-free state," said Candy Clepper, president of the Greater Chattanooga Right to Life.

By phone Wednesday, she said the law is saving lives, and if it "gets chipped away and chipped away, we're gonna be right back where we were before."

About 56% of respondents to the Times Free Press voter poll agreed with the statement that "abortion is a decision between a woman and her doctor, with no government restrictions."

About 29% said abortion should be "illegal except in the cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother."

And about 9% agreed with the statement that "abortion is murder and should be illegal in all circumstances."

Remaining respondents said they were unsure, declined to answer, or supported an option not offered in the poll.

"I think your poll's wrong," said longtime Chattanooga anti-abortion advocate Doug Daugherty by phone Monday, based on electoral outcomes in the area.

"Look at our state legislature," Daugherty said, referring to the strong opposition to abortion in Nashville. "Look at our state delegation."

He said he was suspicious of the methodology and pointed out that, depending on how questions are asked, people give widely different responses.

There are no perfect abortion poll questions, said John Geer, who co-directs Vanderbilt University's statewide poll, which also asks Tennesseans about abortion.

Asked about the Times Free Press poll, he said the most "pro-choice" option -- that there should be no government restrictions on abortion -- was a bit expansive and makes it hard to gauge the amount of people who moderately support abortion rights.

Geer also said the use of the strong word "murder" in the most "pro-life" option might suppress some of the response to that option.

Still, he said, though one might quibble with the wording of some questions, the Times Free Press poll finds a surprising degree of abortion-rights sentiment -- and accords with a broader nationwide trend.

"If Tennessee was the only state in the union that was showing this pattern, that'd be one thing," he said.

But he said several polls nationwide, and the recent election results, suggest the Supreme Court decision affected public sentiment on the issue.

Tennesseans tend to oppose abortion more than the average American, Geer said.

Gallup polling before the high court's decision found the majority of Americans consider themselves to be "pro-choice" -- an increase from the previous year, in which only 49% identified that way. After the court's ruling, the Pew Research Center found 62% of Americans think abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

In Tennessee, a little more than half of respondents identified as "definitely or somewhat pro-life" in the Vanderbilt University statewide poll, which was conducted in spring 2022 in the lead-up to the Supreme Court decision.

Still, in the same statewide poll, more than 80% of respondents said abortion should at least be legal in some cases -- such as a pregnancy caused by rape or incest -- that are no longer permitted under Tennessee law.

Known as the Human Life Protection Act, the Tennessee law passed in 2019 went into effect this summer after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization effectively struck down Roe v. Wade, a decades-old landmark ruling that established a constitutional right to abortion, and thus prohibited states from passing laws fully outlawing the procedure.

The Tennessee law bans abortion after the fertilization of a pregnancy is confirmed. It states doctors can perform the procedure if they can muster a preponderance of evidence that the abortion was necessary to save the life of or prevent serious bodily harm to the mother. But some doctors say they should not bear the burden of proof in such cases and have said it creates a tension between their duty to effectively treat patients and the law, which threatens prison terms of up to 15 years for doctors convicted of wrongly performing the procedure.

Abortion opponents see the concerns as overblown, overshadowing a law that helps avoid what one local activist described as the "greatest moral injustice in the history of the world."

Daugherty became an anti-abortion activist in the 1980s after hearing from God, he said, adding his efforts are motivated by compassion. He recalls in the 1990s entering the building that housed Chattanooga's last abortion clinic after he helped an anti-abortion organization buy the facility.

"It was like walking into Dachau," he said, referring to the Nazi concentration camp.

Critics of the law see anti-abortion rhetoric as dangerous and inflammatory. Anti-abortion arguments are often "devoid of nuance," said Allison Gorman, a Chattanoogan who recently ran an unsuccessful campaign for state office.

"There doesn't seem to be any appreciation for the fact that you can feel, as I do, that the goal of reducing abortion rates is a very noble one, but to do it in this ham-fisted way that strips people of their human rights and actually endangers people is the wrong way to go," Gorman said by phone Monday.

Today, the main organized dedicated group of abortion-rights advocates is the Chattanooga Health Advocacy Team, which fundraises for abortion assistance, hosts rallies, disburses education materials and contraceptives, and provides a space where abortion-rights advocates can candidly express their beliefs.

Shannon Hardaway, a founding member of the group, said anti-abortion advocates are far louder and more aggressive in their beliefs than abortion-rights advocates.

The stigma against abortion runs deep, Hardaway said. Only when she became an abortion-rights activist, she said, did people in her life, even close friends, reveal to her their own experiences of going through the procedure.

"Speaking up is what's going to change things," Hardaway said by phone Monday.

The first time she talked about her abortion in public, she feared she would get death threats, Hardaway said.

"But the more we talk about it, the less scary it becomes," she said.

Chattanooga Times Free Press voter survey:

I want to ask you about your view on abortion, given the Supreme court’s recent decision to overturn Roe. v. Wade. Which of these statements best describes your view on abortion?

Abortion is a decision between a woman and her doctor, with no government restrictions: 56.3%

Abortion should be illegal except in the cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother: 28.9%

Abortion is murder and should be illegal in all circumstances: 9.3%

Unsure, other, or decline to answer: 5.5%

Contact Andrew Schwartz at aschwartz@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6431. Follow him on Twitter @aonSchwartz.