Should state Constitution be changed to prohibit abortion? No
by Sandy Smith Madsen

KnoxNews Perspectives
Knoxville News Sentinel
August 08, 2004

In 1873, the all-male United States Supreme Court ruled that women were forbidden to practice law because: "The paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator."

It would take almost 100 years for the high court to reconsider. In 1971, the court acknowledged -- for the first time -- that women are individuals before they are wives and mothers. Unfortunately, it can take far longer to change attitudes than laws.

After decades of struggle by the women's movement, Tennessee can now boast of a state Legislature that is 17 percent female. However, the women of Tennessee rank last in the nation in political participation. A recent study finds that states ranking poorly in the status of women tend to be states with restrictive abortion laws. Forcing women to become mothers is one way to discourage women from becoming lawyers and legislators.

While abortion is not as restricted in Tennessee as in Mississippi and Louisiana, national abortion rights organizations give Tennessee a grade of D-minus. Our anti-choice Legislators are working hard to earn us an F.

The most ominous of their efforts is a proposed amendment to the state Constitution, which would abolish the state guarantee of a woman's right to make her own decision about when, or if, to become a mother. This amendment goes so far as to use "mother" as a synonym for woman.

Anti-choice Legislators propose bill after bill aimed at imposing what they like to call "commonsense" abortion regulations. Even a cursory look at history reveals that, when conservatives start talking about commonsense solutions, ordinary women had best run for the hills. Some "commonsense" regulations include: mandatory counseling by a health professional (aka informed consent), mandatory 24-hour delays in abortion procedures and a requirement that all second-trimester abortions be performed in hospitals.

According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a woman can actually obtain an abortion in only 14 percent of U.S. hospitals. Twenty-four percent of these hospitals perform fewer than five abortions a year. Hospitals are also far more costly than clinics. Requiring women to make long trips and raise large sums of money is one way to make abortion rare.

Mandatory counseling requirements are currently enforced in 20 states. This "commonsense" regulation forces women to make an extra trip to the clinic so health professionals can deliver counseling or state-scripted lectures on fetal development, prenatal care and adoption. For some reason, receiving this information by phone or mail is not an option. Mandatory counseling informs women that public funding is available for prenatal care and delivery but not for an abortion unless she has been raped, a victim of incest or her life is endangered.

There's no help for low-income Tennessee women who carry fetuses with severe defects. There's no help when pregnancies provoke severe health consequences such as blindness or disability. Sixteen states circumvent draconian federal restrictions by providing state funds for all medically necessary abortions. It costs far more to pay for prenatal care and delivery than for abortion. It costs even more to pay for the consequences of failing to pay for medically necessary abortions. After mandatory counseling comes the mandatory 24-hour delay in the abortion procedure. Women are sent home and told to think about the procedure for 24 hours. In fact, the state order to think is an order to think again. Going home to think may require women to travel more than 100 miles. Only 6 percent of Tennessee counties have an abortion provider; only 46 percent of Tennessee women live in those counties.

Clinics commonly perform abortions only one or two days per week. Thus, a woman with an appointment at a Knoxville clinic that offers abortions on Tuesday mornings, Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings could have her counseling on Tuesday and her abortion on Friday.

If she doesn't live in Knoxville, she'll be forced to take more time off from work and pay more for accommodations. She may have to make two separate trips to the city. As she spends precious weeks or months raising money, gestation age increases along with the risks and costs of abortion.

Some of our anti-choice legislators advocate outlawing abortion in all instances except to save the life of a woman. In other words, they think Tennessee women should be subjected to the same law as the women of Iran. One of Tennessee's rare female state legislators recently observed that the Tennessee State General Assembly is still very much a man's world. Mandating restrictive abortion laws is one way to keep it that way.

Sandy Smith Madsen, a writer and women's studies scholar based in Nashville, is the founder of Tennessee Guerilla Women, a statewide Internet-based organization of politically active women. This piece was distributed by the Tennessee Forum. She may be contacted at: