A Tennessee Highway Patrol trooper issues orders to a protester at the State Capitol during a rally Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2015, in Nashville, Tenn. The protesters rallied at the opening of the second session of the 109th General Assembly in response to the ratification of Amendment One in November, which added language to the Tennessee Constitution giving legislators the power to place restrictions on abortions.
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NASHVILLE -- The abortion debate made a dramatic entrance Tuesday during the Tennessee General Assembly's opening day as protesters took their opposition to proposed new restrictions directly into the state Capitol.

With shouts of "My body. My choice," a group of some 60 mostly female protesters made their way to the first floor of the Capitol with about 20 or so of them later making their way to the second floor where House and Senate members were being sworn into office for the 109th General Assembly.

But they did not get inside the respective House and Senate chambers and official proceedings weren't interrupted. Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville and Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville were re-elected without opposition in the GOP-dominated Legislature.

Earlier, the protesters, many of them young women, split off from a rally and march of hundreds of demonstrators attending a nearby "March on Nashville."

All were protesting lawmakers' plans to pass abortion restriction legislation now permissible after state voters last year approved a Tennessee constitutional amendment that gave lawmakers more power to regulate the procedure.

Beth Foster, director of the Mercy Junction Justice and Peace Center in Chattanooga, told participants at the earlier rally that the abortion amendment, which passed with 52.6 percent of the vote statewide, was defeated in Hamilton County and other urban areas of the state.

"We shouldn't have to be here today, but we are here," she told the 350 to 400 participants in the outdoor rally adjacent to a state office building near the Capitol.

Demonstrators waved signs like "Keep your laws off my body."

Earlier, a group of female Republican lawmakers and Tennessee Right to Life officials held a news conference.

They stated their objective is to re-pass three abortion-related laws. They deal with "informed consent," a mandatory waiting period and regulation of all abortion facilities. All were struck down in a 2000 ruling by the Tennessee Supreme Court. The amendment that passed in November, known as Amendment 1, gutted the decision.

What I hope we did was make the politicians aware there's a very strong, very vocal anti-Amendment 1 contingent that's not going to stand by and let legislation get passed."

Stacy Dunn, Right to Life's vice president, said priorities "remain the restoration of three common-sense policies to protect the health and safety of women and girls considering abortion in our state."

Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mount Juliet, sponsor of the informed consent bill, called it "really a historic moment. I've been in the Legislature long enough to see all the laws passed that we're trying to instate this year, to see the Supreme Court overturn those" and then an ultimately successful years-long effort to change the state Constitution.

The group is shying away from a bill introduced by Rep. Rick Womick, R-Rockvale, that would require women get an ultrasound before they can undergo an abortion. He has no Senate sponsor at this point.

Later, the protesters went inside the Capitol accompanied by a man beating a tom-tom drum. Initially, some 20 Tennessee state troopers kept them restricted to an area near an entrance, denying them access to where lawmakers were on the second floor.

The protesters, who had presented their photo IDs and consented to cursory searches to receive temporary passes, chanted and objected. After one protester pointed out they had "played by the [state's] rules," troopers eventually allowed a group of them, who agreed not to bring signs, to go upstairs. They chanted slogans as sometimes-bemused lobbyists, curious onlookers and sometimes occasionally startled lawmakers and their families watched.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, part of a delegation of senators sent to inform representatives in the House that the upper chamber was up and running, raised his eyebrows and smiled as he walked by the protesters.

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Meryl Woo Rice, right, takes part in an abortion rights protest at the state Capitol.

As lawmakers concluded the day's business, House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, left the chamber and saw the protesters, still chanting, this time, "pro-choice, pro-family."

"Everybody's got a right to be [here] and protest in the people's building," McCormick said.

Rose Brannen, a nurse from Nashville, said she and others' intention was to ensure lawmakers know restrictions are opposed despite the passage of Amendment 1, the abortion resolution, in November.

She said she personally backs "common-sense legislation, which means if we want to reduce the abortion rates we have to do things like increase access to contraception, things like comprehensive sex education."

"What I hope we did was make the politicians aware there's a very strong, very vocal anti-Amendment 1 contingent that's not going to stand by and let legislation get passed," she said.

Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, a bishop within the Church of God, later said he spoke with some of the protesters. It's everyone's First Amendment right to speak out, he noted.

"My beliefs aren't swayed, my beliefs don't change," Brooks said. "I shook a few hands and thanked them for coming. And I wish they would change the way they believe. But I've been up here long enough to see ... it's a part of the process. We just have to keep it all in perspective."


Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, an abortion-rights supporter, is siding with the protesters.

"I concur with that; you know I do," said Favors, a retired nurse and health care executive. She said she's hoping her Republican colleagues at the very least won't pass Womick's ultrasound requirement legislation.

Lawmakers will continue meeting this week and will attend the inauguration of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam on Saturday before recessing for two weeks. Haslam is calling them back for a special session that starts Feb. 2 in which he is asking lawmakers to approve his proposed Insure Tennessee.

The two-year pilot project is what Haslam calls his "market-driven" approach to Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. Some of his fellow Republicans in the Legislature are down-right against it while some are wary and yet others are supportive.

Other issues before lawmakers in their regular session include a looming fight over education standards and a possible gas tax increase.

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