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Abortion Restrictions on 3 State Ballots

Three states are putting the issue to voters in November, including one measure that would criminalize abortion.

ELECTION 2014: This article is part of our coverage of ballot measures to watch.

Republican lawmakers in Tennessee want more control in regulating abortions. The problem is, the state Supreme Court in 2000 struck down several abortion restrictions, which has discouraged lawmakers from passing some abortion restrictions. In the majority opinion, the justices said Tennessee’s constitution offered higher privacy protections than even the federal constitution, and those protections extended to a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy.

A ballot measure scheduled for November is the pro-life answer to that 2000 court ruling.

Tennessee is not the only state asking voters to weigh in on abortion policies in November. Colorado and North Dakota have ballot measures that would legally define a fetus as a person. In the case of North Dakota, the measure specifically defines life beginning at conception. The Colorado measure calls for a legal definition of personhood to include the unborn. The three ballot measures are part of a larger wave of state laws passed since 2010 to limit abortions.

The Tennessee measure doesn’t actually ask voters to approve restrictions on abortion. Instead, it asks voters to add language in the state Constitution that would clarify “nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion.”

The amendment goes on to say that Tennessee voters have a right to change abortion laws through their elected state representatives in the legislature. But in all likelihood, if the legislature has the right “to enact, amend, or repeal statutes regarding abortion,” legislators would tighten restrictions against abortion. Just consider the provisions that the state Supreme Court struck down in 2000:

  • a ban on second-trimester abortions outside of hospitals
  • a two-day delay after meeting with a physician before an abortion could take place
  • a mandate that physicians hand out certain information before an abortion could take place
Even after the state Supreme Court ruling, the legislature has passed some abortion regulations with less far-reaching implications. It has banned the use of video conferences for doctors to prescribe miscarriage-inducing drugs to patients. Lesislators also passed a law that requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at local hospitals.

Several factors led to the 14-year delay between the court ruling and the November election. The measure had to pass out of the Republican-controlled legislature in two separate sessions. Some Democratic lawmakers successfully held up previous versions of the bill in committee, according to reporting by Nashville Public Radio. Even when the legislature did pass the amendment in 2011, it had to wait until the next governor's race for a vote.

Even though the amendment has the support of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and a majority in the legislature, it could still fail. A poll of registered voters by Vanderbilt University in May found that 71 percent opposed giving the legislature constitutional authority to regulate abortions. Even among Republican respondents, only 32 percent supported the proposal (among Democrats and independents, support was even lower).

The political scientist who oversaw the Vanderbilt poll told The Tennessean, a Nashville newspaper, not to read too deeply into the results. Support for the proposal might vary, depending on how the question gets worded. Also, abortion is still unpopular in Tennessee. About 70 percent of respondents said they believed abortion should be legal only in cases of rape or incest, or when the life of the mother is in jeopardy.

The measures in Colorado and North Dakota would make a more immediate change to abortion policy by including life before birth -- including a fertilized egg or a fetus -- as part of the state's legal definition of a person. The Colorado measure would give prosecutors the ability to file criminal charges against people who harm unborn children -- including mothers who terminate their pregnancy.

“If we treat a child in the womb at any point as a person, couldn’t it lead to ending abortion? I think it could,” said Keith Mason, the president of Personhood USA, a group campaigning in favor of the measure. “The goal is to respect the human dignity at every age. When you respect human dignity, you don’t kill them. For us, ending abortion is a good thing.”

A September poll of likely voters found that more respondents opposed the measure than supported it (45-35), but 17 percent said they were undecided. Erika West, the political director for NARAL Pro-Choice America, said Personhood USA is trying to obfuscate the real purpose of the measure by not mentioning "abortion" or "personhood" in the ballot language. In 2008 and 2010, more than 70 percent of Colorado voters rejected “personhood” amendments each time.

Much like in Tennessee, the backers of an abortion ballot measure in North Dakota say they want to protect abortion laws from being overturned in courts. Opponents say that the measure would have the effect of banning all abortion services.

All three measures are scheduled for Nov. 4.

J.B. Wogan is a Governing staff writer.
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