Clemmons attempts to amend TN abortion restrictions on House floor


Andy Sher, Times Free Press

April 22, 2015 - NASHVILLE -- Tennessee abortion opponents' 15-year quest to restore restrictions struck down by the state Supreme Court is on the verge of victory, with Republican Gov. Bill Haslam virtually guaranteed to sign into law two bills dealing with the issue.

"Like he does with all legislation that comes to him, he'll review the bills in their final form before taking any action, but I anticipate he'll sign them," Haslam spokesman David Smith said Tuesday.

Earlier Tuesday, the state House took final action and sent to Haslam a bill requiring all abortion clinics be licensed by the state and subject to inspections. The previously passed Senate bill passed the lower chamber by a 79-17 vote.

Then, after an hour-long, often emotional debate, the House approved a second bill that imposes a 48-hour waiting period on women seeking abortions. That bill also includes a mandatory "informed consent" provision under which doctors provide information to women including dangers of the procedure and alternatives.

The House vote on the 48-hour waiting period/informed consent bill was 79 to 18.

Because the chamber added an amendment containing a severability clause to the previously passed Senate version, the measure now goes back to the Senate, where senators are expected to quickly sign off on the change and send the bill to Haslam.

Proponents were near ecstatic.

"It's a happy day for every Tennessean who voted yes on Amendment 1," said Tennessee Right to Life President Brian Harris, referring to last year's successful effort to pass an amendment voiding the Tennessee Supreme Court decision in 2000 that declared similar provisions unconstitutional.

"The will of the people has been achieved," Harris said. "We're finally going to see some common-sense protections."

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, indicated the group will be watching closely to see if the legislation runs afoul of U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

"We are very troubled that the Tennessee Legislature voted to interfere in a woman's personal, private health care decisions," Weinberg said. "We all agree that a woman should have access to safe reproductive health care, but this legislation has nothing to do with a woman's health and safety."

Instead, she charged, "it is about politicians passing laws to burden and intimidate women and their doctors. We will closely monitor the implementation of these new laws to determine their impact on a woman's right to access abortion services."

During House debate, Republican proponents focused on safety and what they called "common-sense" restrictions, while Democratic opponents argued Republicans were restricting women's access to a federally guaranteed right.

"As we all know, abortion is a serious medical procedure with potential serious physical and physiological risks," said Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, who handled the waiting period and physician counseling bill.

It's a "pro-woman" bill, Hill said. "Women and girls deserve all available facts and information to make a fully informed decision."

Upset by those provisions, Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville, countered that "we don't want to make this service harder for women than it is. There's been an insinuation that women jump out of bed some day and say, 'Hey, I'm going to get an abortion.' And that's not true."

Women have "agonized, spoken with their family, talked to somebody in their church or a pastor. This is not something you take on lightly," she said.

Rep. John Ray Clemmons, a Nashville Democrat and attorney, spent his time making legal arguments and offering amendments to prepare for a possible federal court challenge. He offered one that would have allowed women to meet the physician counseling provision via use of telemedicine and communicating visually over the Internet.

Clemmons told the chamber he had reservations about offering the amendment because it would probably help the bill survive a court challenge. The amendment failed, as did all the Democrats' amendments.

"The ultimate effect of this is putting an obstacle in the path of a woman seeking to exercise her constitutional right to an abortion," Clemmons charged.

Democrats were furious when majority Republicans cut off debate and brought the bill up for a vote.

Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, a retired nurse, said she had wanted to speak on the bill but was unable to.

"This [bill] reverts back to the times when people went into the back rooms for an abortion and came into hospitals with hemorrhaging," she said later.

Hill said Tennesseans are on the side of regulation, citing their approval last November of the Amendment 1 provision that made the Tennessee Constitution silent on abortion rights, voiding the 2000 state Supreme Court ruling.

"This legislation fulfills a promise that we made to the voters of Tennessee that, if they passed Amendment 1, that this is exactly what we would do," he said.

In other legislative action Tuesday:

* Some 40 years after Tennessee's mandatory auto-insurance provision became law, a bill now headed to Haslam will provide a way to make enforcement practical. In a 26-1 vote, senators gave final approval to a bill creating a computer system that Tennessee's 95 county clerks would use to check on insurance requirements before issuing vehicle registrations.

"After 40 years of laws on the books," said Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, "we are taking a major step."

The bill, previously passed by the House, would affect an estimated one out of every five Tennessee drivers -- about 1.1 million people who drive at some point without insurance.

Provisions of the bill would allow police to tow vehicles on the spot after their owners have been caught for the third time driving without insurance.

* Tennessee students wishing to graduate high school will have to pass a modified version of the citizenship test given to immigrants seeking to become U.S. citizens under a bill given final approval by the Senate on Tuesday.

The bill now goes to Haslam.

The Senate bill, sponsored in the House by Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, passed on a 30-0 vote.

It requires districts to select 25 to 50 questions from the exam. Students would have to score at least 70 to pass. They can take the test as many times as they need to in order to pass.

McCormick says the bill is needed to correct a situation where American students are woefully ignorant of how their government works. It's part of a national effort.