Tennessee anti-abortion groups at crossroads on restrictions

AP News
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Posted: Feb 07, 2017 5:25 PM

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A Tennessee anti-abortion group is urging state lawmakers invigorated by Donald Trump's presidential victory to hold off on passing new abortion restrictions until the courts decide the fate of several major abortion laws.

The wait-and-see approach seems odd for a Bible belt state after Trump's election emboldened U.S. social conservatives eager to roll back Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling legalizing abortion nationwide. But the group Tennessee Right to Life is asking lawmakers to avoid passing more limitations until the courts weigh in on laws the state has already passed.

A 2014 constitutional amendment laying the groundwork for more abortion restrictions in Tennessee faces the biggest court challenge. Another federal lawsuit could doom three state laws that tightened medical requirements for abortion providers and required counseling and a waiting period for those seeking abortions.

Already this legislative session, two proposals have been offered in Tennessee to outlaw abortions at 20 weeks or far less.

Brian Harris, president of Tennessee Right to Life, said the proposals seem well-intended but are unconstitutional under existing law and could harm ongoing legal cases if passed.

"I understand there's a priority to push the envelope," Harris said. "But Tennessee voters have already pushed the envelope in passage of a state constitutional amendment that affirms the protection of life. I think ... it would be key to allow those court challenges to make their way through the system."

Tennessee's Republican Senate speaker, Randy McNally, also wants to wait on the courts before advancing more legislation, an aide said.

The unresolved court challenges haven't deterred one Republican representative, James Van Huss, from pushing a proposal to outlaw abortions when a fetal heartbeat is detected by ultrasound — as early as six weeks, and before many women are aware they're pregnant. Courts have struck down similar laws in North Dakota and Arkansas.

Even if Van Huss' bill were to ultimately end up in court, he figures Trump and his judicial picks would be on his side. "I see the election of President Trump as an opportunity to protect life more than we have," Van Huss said.

In 2014, Tennessee voters approved a constitutional amendment that said nothing in the state constitution "secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion." It empowered state lawmakers to "enact, amend, or repeal statutes regarding abortion."

Last spring, U.S. District Judge Kevin Sharp ordered a recount, ruling the votes were unfairly counted. But an appellate court hasn't yet decided whether a recount will happen.

Separately, a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Nashville targets the three other laws. Those require abortion providers to have hospital admitting privileges and meet hospital-level surgical standards at their clinics— the latter requirement temporarily blocked in the region by a judge. Another law mandates counseling and a 48-hour waiting period for women seeking abortions.

Sharp, an appointee of then President Barack Obama, put the case on hold awaiting a related Supreme Court decision, which in June 2016 struck down similar laws in Texas about admitting privileges in hospitals and hospital-like standards for abortion providers.

Though the case hasn't resumed since, abortion rights groups believe the laws will be ruled unconstitutional because of the Texas decision.

"The Supreme Court has made clear that medically unnecessary abortion restrictions violate the Constitution and threaten women's health," said Stephanie Toti, senior counsel at the Center for Reproductive Rights. "We will continue standing with Tennessee women until all of those restrictions have been stricken from the statute books."

Meanwhile, not all anti-abortion groups are content with a wait-and-see approach.

"We're not here to try to find laws that everybody likes," said Tennessee Pastors Network Vice President Ben Graham, who supports the Van Huss bill. "We're here to make sure that we define in our laws what is right, to protect every person."


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