"Get out of people’s personal lives": Meet the sweeping abortion restriction that even "pro-life" voters won't support

How sweeping does a measure have to be for conservative "pro-life" voters to turn on it? Tennessee may find out

By Katie McDonough

Published June 3, 2014 2:00PM (EDT)

               (AP/Orlin Wagner)
(AP/Orlin Wagner)

Tennessee is currently mulling a constitutional amendment that would give the state Legislature even more authority to restrict access to abortion. (Can you believe that conservative lawmakers would do this? I can hardly believe it.) Here's the language from the proposal:

Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion. The people retain the right through their elected state representatives and state senators to enact, amend, or repeal statutes regarding abortion, including, but not limited to, circumstances of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest or when necessary to save the life of the mother.

What this means is that anti-choice lawmakers in Tennessee -- who already have a lot of power to restrict abortion services -- would be given more power to define under what circumstances abortion should be legal or accessible. And if you look at the language, the end game is basically, "Under no circumstances will abortion be legal or accessible in Tennessee." Not even when it comes to the narrowly defined exceptions for the life or health of the person seeking an abortion. Same goes for cases in which the pregnancy is a product of rape or incest.

This is something that anti-choice lawmakers like to do. A lot. Republicans in Alaska and Oklahoma have each proposed measures to let them define what counts as a medical emergency instead of doctors when it comes to abortion care. Republicans in Michigan don't like rape exceptions. Republicans in the United States House of Representatives don't like incest exceptions. What's happening in Tennessee is not some outlier thinking; it's party consensus that has been built around an increasingly radical and well-resourced fringe movement of activists and national organizations.

But here's the actual surprising part: An overwhelming majority of voters in the state oppose the amendment as written; 71 percent, to be exact. Even Republican voters seem to hate this thing. Because -- when you spell it out like this -- most voters seem to think that giving politicians full control over a medical procedure is a massive overstep. As the researchers at Vanderbilt University noted, this poll may say very little about the actual fate of the amendment, but it's instructive to see that this kind of sweeping regulatory power over medical decisions -- at least when it's made explicit --  turns a lot of voters off, pretty much across party lines.

State Democrats have seized on the lack of support in their messaging. "We are opposed to that bill in every way," David Harper, an official for the state's Democratic Party, said of the amendment. "And the reason for that is just simply, we trust people to have good judgments for themselves and we do not think that the state legislature should be the one making those decisions. They’re very personal and they’re very private. And we respect people to have their own judgments."

Oklahoma state Rep. Doug Cox, a self-identified pro-life Republican, has articulated the same point to explain why he doesn't support the mess of restrictions his colleagues have passed in recent years. Here's Cox -- a lawmaker and practicing physician -- on his opposition to a recent proposal that would give government officials in Oklahoma this kind of of power to determine medical best practice:

They’re placing the board of health in charge of determining basically what our best medical practices are. That’s never been done before, and there’s a reason it hasn’t been done before. Our state board of health, some of its member — for instance, one of them is an immediate past president of the human resources division of Chesapeake Energy. [This board member] has no medical knowledge whatsoever. She is a great board of health member, but it’s out of her bailiwick to determine what doctors should and shouldn’t do while taking care of patients.

There is a dentist on our board of health; there are maybe three family practitioners — great physicians, but there are parts of medicine that are out of their expertise. It would be like asking me, as an emergency room physician, to set the rules and regulations for brain surgery. And so this is starting down a slippery slope.

And here's North Dakota state Rep. Kathy Hawken, another Republican who supports reproductive rights in the name of small government, fiscal responsibility and reproductive health, on the same principle:

We need to get out of people’s personal lives. We shouldn’t be there. None of us have gone to medical school, and for that matter, not many of us have gone to law school. We shouldn’t be there. We should let church do what church does, and we, as lawmakers, should do what we do. These things shouldn’t as intertwined as they are.

And, finally, here's Cheryl Chastine, the medical director of the South Wind Women's Center -- George Tiller's former practice -- on strategies that may help advance the conversation on reproductive rights in states that are traditionally hostile to the issue. (States like Kansas, where she works):

I think that this conversation can do well by focusing on invasiveness of the government -- of the state presuming to make private healthcare decisions for patients as well as for physicians who are practicing

Consistency and critical thinking have never been the strong suits of anti-choice politicians or activists, so there's no real reason that they should feel compelled to reject this kind of government intrusion on principle, but this understanding of limited government has long informed the advocacy of the people working on the ground in places facing harsher and harsher restrictions. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, reproductive rights advocates succeeded in defeating a municipal ban on abortion at 20 weeks by framing the issue as one of government intrusion into private medical decisions -- which it totally was. Across the country, polls have found that once voters better understand the reasons that people get abortions at 20 weeks -- both personal and medical -- they seemed less inclined to support such a restriction.

Give people a little information and the sense that the government being in the doctor's office is just creepy, and they seem to get it. At least a little bit more than they did before. And to gauge how this translates to voting behavior, we'll have to wait and see what happens to Tennessee's proposed Amendment One.

Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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