Clemmons is Lone Ranger in Abortion Debate on the Hill

Abby White, Nashville Scene

March 24, 2015 - On March 10, Planned Parenthood of Middle and East Tennessee held their lobby day on Capitol Hill. More than 100 volunteers — most clad in pink Planned Parenthood T-shirts — attended meetings at Legislative Plaza, speaking face-to-face with their elected officials regarding proposed abortion legislation. At the time, multiple bills involving abortion regulation had already been introduced in the state House and Senate, which was not a huge surprise after theNovember passage of Amendment 1.

These meetings primarily involved discussions around three areas of interest — mandatory waiting periods, scripted informed consent, and licensing of abortion-providing facilities as ambulatory surgical treatment centers — all of which would restrict access to safe, legal abortion in the state of Tennessee.

The House Health Subcommittee didn't tackle any abortion-related bills on Planned Parenthood's lobby day, but chair Rep. Ryan Williams (R-Cookeville) told the Scene that he was among the legislators who met with constituents about the proposed legislation.

"I look forward to the dialogue," Williams said on March 10. "I think most of the bills that have been filed so far are a byproduct of Yes on One, the Amendment that passed last year. It will be interesting to see as the Tennesseans have voiced what they want to do with Amendment 1. We'll get the opportunity for the General Assembly and the legislators who represent those people to talk about these topics, so it will be interesting to hear the debate."

Well, today, with a packed agenda of 46 bills up for discussion, Williams didn't seem so keen on dragging out the dialogue about abortion. But this didn't stop Rep. John Ray Clemmons (D-Nashville) from relentlessly questioning Reps. Matthew Hill (R-Jonesborough) and Susan Lynn (R-Mt. Juliet) when they addressed the committee about the details of the bills they're carrying.

For Hill's HB0977, a bill that would require physicians to provide mandatory informed consent and force the patient to wait 48 hours for an abortion procedure after receiving this consent, Clemmons drilled Hill, repeatedly asking if the purpose of this legislation was to place obstacles in the path of a woman seeking an abortion. When Hill responded that it was not, Clemmons asked if there was any evidence showing that women were currently not being provided enough information before undergoing an abortion procedure. Hill again responded that there was not, but that women needed necessary time to think about any provided information to make such a serious decision, hence the combo of the consent and the waiting period.

(For brevity's sake, I will table the ridiculous idea that a legislator should have any say in how long a woman should be forced to think about a medical procedure — what is this, a state-mandated time-out? — before she has the right to legally access it.)

Clemmons and Hill then debated back and forth about how long it actually took to get an abortion and how safe an abortion procedure is (in case you're wondering, lots of info on that here). When Clemmons asked Hill if abortions were safer today than in, say, 1978, Hill responded, "It's not safer for the unborn child," prompting Clemmons to ask why Hill said "unborn child" instead of "embryo" or "fetus." On that last one, Clemmons couldn't help but wryly point out that using such terminology must have been intentional. Hill said it was to "mirror language" that was previously in the code. Oh, Hill. Mirroring language from antiquated laws sounds like turning back the clock on women's rights to me, but I guess that's just the way I look at your terminology.

Clemmons kept pushing, asking if the bill's intent was to create additional expenses for a woman. After an awkward pause, Clemmons asked if Hill had a response, and Hill said no. Clemmons asked if Hill disagreed, and Williams jumped in to break up the debate. In the end, the subcommittee voted to pass HB0977, so we'll see how it fares in the Health Committee.

Lynn then presented HB1368, which would require any facility performing more than 50 abortions per year to be licensed as an ambulatory surgical treatment center (ASTC). This bill is clearly a reaction to the 2002 lawsuit, The Tennessee Department of Health v. Gary Boyle, which allowed abortion-providing facilities to operate without such a license, just like any other private medical practice that does not primarily perform surgical procedures.

Clemmons asked Lynn if this bill, like Hill's, was intended to create obstacles for women seeking an abortion. She responded that she didn't know how about "obstacles" because she didn't know anything about these unlicensed facilities, or anything about those "numbers."

OK ... now, even if a private practice is not licensed as an ASTC, the associated physician(s) have to be licensed by the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners. Said physician(s) have to report medical procedures to the state, which they do through codes, kind of like the ones you see on your medical bills. Shouldn't that data be out there? Why are these numbers so hard to find?

Clemmons said that he was concerned that Lynn didn't seem to know very much about these unlicensed facilities, and that she might not understand the possible impact of this proposed legislation. Lynn responded that she did know that Tennessee has eight facilities — we counted seven last fall, but whatever — that "advertise" abortion services, and of those eight, four are unlicensed.

(I don't claim to be a math whiz, but Lynn seems to have a problem with numbers. And, maybe, words. Back in January, Lynn & Co. said they considered an abortion facility "open" if they saw an advertisement for it.)

Since people hate math, Lynn went for the emotional angle, stating that the bill is all about protecting women's health. Abortion is such an invasive procedure, she said, it can be dangerous.

Lest this debate grow any longer, Williams jumped in again, stating that he'd sent out surveys in his district that revealed that his constituents felt like "this was good public policy," to have licensure for "this kind of facility." Unsurprisingly, HB1368 is moving to the Health Committee.

It's worth noting that Lynn's HB0948 — also involving licensure of abortion-providing facilities as ASTCs — was taken off notice today, so it looks like her efforts will be focused on HB1368 for the time being.

Womick’s HB0002, an attempt to pass forced ultrasounds before an abortion procedure and the first bill filed this session, has been rolled to next week.