“This is the Women’s Center. We need an ambulance ASAP,” a woman’s voice says on the thirty-second television ad. Emergency lights flash across the screen. “You’re listening to an actual 911 call,” says the narrator. “Tennessee has compromised the health and safety of certain women. Some Tennessee abortion facilities are not regulated like other surgical centers. This has to change.”
One of the year’s most heated battles over abortion access is playing out in Tennessee, where voters are considering a constitutional amendment that would open the door to a flood of anti-abortion legislation. With early voting underway and the election a week off, supporters of the ballot measure—known as Amendment 1—are amping up a campaign built around misinformation and fear. Voters have reported meddling by poll workers. And some abortion opponents are trying to use procedural trickery to lower the threshold of “yes” votes needed to pass the measure.
The fight over Amendment 1 has been more than a decade in the making. In a 2000 ruling striking down a slate of abortion restrictions, the Tennessee Supreme Court declared that the state’s constitution contained a fundamental right to privacy, which covered a women’s decision to terminate a pregnancy. As a result, Tennessee lawmakers have not been able to impose the kind of anti-abortion laws, disguised as safety measures, that other southern states have in recent years, such as mandatory waiting periods.
Ever since that constitutional right was declared, conservatives in the Tennessee legislation have been trying to gut it. They failed, repeatedly, until the 2010 elections brought a Republican supermajority to power in the state legislature, which passed the amendment in 2011. “Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion,” it asserts. While technically the measure by itself wouldn’t change any regulations, supporters are clear about where it leads. “After [Amendment 1] passes, I have several ideas,” state senator Stacey Campfield told the Family Action Council of Tennessee. “I doubt there are any ideas I would oppose that would restrict abortion in Tennessee.”
“If this amendment passes, the floodgates will open,” warned Hedy Weinberg, the executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee. “In January 2015 when the Tennessee legislature convenes, we will see a lot of egregious and irrelevant legislation introduced.”
As of last week, groups had spent $2.4 million on more than 3,000 television ads related to ballot measures in Tennessee, with most of the focused on Amendment 1. Nearly $1 million was spent by both sides ads in the week when early voting started. Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, other reproductive-justice groups and even some members of the clergy are leading the fight against the amendment.