Post Politics: Abortion fight’s new battlefield

Tuesday, May 26, 2009 at 1:00am

After bumping up, year after year, against the bill killing stylings of Jimmy Naifeh, the pro-life movement can finally claim a victory. The controversial abortion resolution SJR 127 has not just passed the state Senate, as it had on previous occasions, but the state House, too. And it wasn't even close.

On the abortion Right, amongst Republicans, there was much rejoicing as the triumph was the culmination of years of political work. On the abortion left, amongst progressives and liberal Democrats, there was not just disappointment but shock and horror. Not only had the state house voted against "the right to choose" only 21 members (mostly from urban and/or minority-heavy districts) of the General Assembly stood up in "support of abortion rights."

Of course, many observers and those in the middle say that this fight was much ado about nothing. The stakes here were small and the changes made mostly deferred. For all the hubbub about the resolution, you'd think that Tennessee had just declared abortion illegal.

But regardless of your personal feelings on the issue, it is important to remember exactly what this resolution seeks to do. SJR127 is about amending the state constitution.

"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." Those are the words that SJR127 seeks to add to the constitution.

The amendment, which still needs to pass through the next General Assembly with a two-thirds majority as well as be approved by a vote of the people during the following gubernatorial election, does not outlaw abortion. Nor does SJR 127 even restrict the right to abortion. The resolution itself is agnostic on the issue of abortion. It simply takes the issue off the plate of one branch of government, the judiciary, and gives it to another, the legislature.

Now, of course, those proponents who call the proposal a simple "return to neutrality" on abortion are being a tad disingenuous. Those pushing the amendment want the power to legislate on abortion because they do aim to roll back abortion rights in Tennessee. They wish to restore the restrictions on abortion that Planned Parenthood of Middle Tennessee vs. Sundquist [2000] took away and they seek, if and when the federal courts allow, to place restrictions on abortion that would make the right to abortion all but de jure illegal.

This is not the huge victory that pro-lifers are celebrating nor is it the crushing defeat those who hold abortion rights dear are acting like it is. It is just a transfer of power.

This, of course, is the beauty of this thing. SJR127 does nothing to alter the status quo on abortion. 2015 is the earliest the legislature can start adding restrictions on abortion to the code and even then they will be able to go no further than federal law allows. In the meantime, this long drawn out fight pays nothing but dividends politically.

For a small segment of religious voters there is no calling in politics greater than the fight for the unborn. Those who fight in the arena for this cause are rewarded with time, money and votes from activists. It is an endless reservoir of support.

The politicians meanwhile are spared from the actual weight of voting to make abortion illegal. The best the politicians can do for the pro-life cause right now is to get Tennessee law in line with federal law. That's it. For a state securely in The Bible Belt, this is hardly revolutionary.

These politicians don't have to worry about outlawing and many are glad they don't. Because while there are true believers in the legislature, mostly there are just politicians. Actually outlawing abortion is not a step most of them much want to take. And the last thing they want is an end to this thing. SJR 127 is a Republican politician's dream. They get to fight the culture war without actually doing much substantive to restrict abortion. The Left aids and abets the process, raising a ruckus that the Republican pols can then point to as evidence of their courage and commitment.

Those in favor of abortion rights do not lose a battle if SJR127 is eventually passed — they simply change battlefields. This cultural war is not over, it's just begun.

A.C. Kleinheider is's political blogger. Visit Post Politics at

2 Comments on this post:

By: imdyinhere on 5/26/09 at 8:13

It's not a culture war, it's a language war and in some ways, a civil war in the strictest sense.

Ex-POTUS Bush did it with his signing statements that often ran contrary to the legislation in front of him; Eric Crafton attempted to do ("Nothing in this measure shall be interpreted to conflict with federal or state law.”) it with "English First."

SJR127 doesn't change the state's constitution at all. Rather, it attempts to impose a law of how the constitution will be interpreted, which, in itself strikes me as unconstitutional no matter what state we're talking about. It's the attempt to bypass the judicial branch of government that citizens should be gravely concerned about.

By: citypapergs on 5/27/09 at 10:37

I do not understand our state politicians. People are losing their jobs and their houses. We don't have adequate funding to run the state. But in their mind, the most important tasks at hand are amending the constitution to restrict abortions, and debating the wisdom of carrying guns into bars!

Where are our priorities?