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National Abortion Rights Group Launches TN Campaign

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In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down a Texas law limiting abortion clinics, a national abortion rights group has launched a campaign to turn Tennesseans against similar laws here.

NARAL Pro-Choice America sent national staff to Tennessee a few weeks ago to kick-start its “Tennessee Total Access” project, which aims to establish networks of abortion-access supporters in urban areas. Later, these networks could be mobilized to oust candidates who limit abortion access or to galvanize mayors and other leaders to support it, says Erica Brunner, a NARAL director of strategic relations.

In a press release, NARAL characterizes its goal in Tennessee as “harnessing the power of the pro-choice movement in one of the reddest states in the country.” (NARAL’s name has changed multiple times, but the acronym most recently stood for “National Abortion Rights Action League.”) In other states, NARAL has pushed back against anti-abortion legislators, setting up local chapters to curry support and initiate action behind its pro-choice mission.

The first “Tennessee Total Access” event in Knoxville will be a feminist trivia night at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 7 at Saw Works Brewing Company. It’s co-sponsored by the Scruffy City Community Action Team, which advocates for “reproductive freedom and entwined issues,” according to its Facebook page.

Abortion and Family Values

Brunner says NARAL’s short-term goal is to create a statewide, values-based platform “that promotes women’s equality and reproductive healthcare access.” Specific legislative goals won’t be included yet. Mayors—and later legislators and business leaders—will be asked to endorse the platform and answer questions about how they’ll promote reproductive freedom.

Brunner says the campaign will be focused in urban centers with larger constituencies. (Coincidentally, Tennessee cities generally happen to have more widespread support than rural areas for abortion access, too.) Nashville hosted the first event yesterday.

A February poll about Tennesseans’ attitudes toward abortion, conducted by Middle Tennessee State University, found similar results to the same poll last November: A little more than half of respondents said they thought abortion should be illegal in most or all cases, while 36 percent said it should be legal in most or all cases.

Nonetheless, NARAL chose to focus on Tennessee along with five other states. All either have, or are considering, laws very similar to the one struck down in Texas. Perhaps surprisingly, Tennessee is the only one in the South. The others are Missouri, South Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota.

Brunner says that NARAL’s polling has found that even in conservative states, there are a “middle third” of residents who oppose abortion personally but support allowing others the right to choose it. She says NARAL wants to address that group by putting abortion access in the context of family choices and family-friendly policies, like parental leave and pregnancy nondiscrimination. “What we hope to highlight is the hypocrisy of the other side, not doing anything for families,” she says.

In Tennessee, “the other side” includes U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Williamson County, who chaired the House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives as it investigated a series of videos claiming to show Planned Parenthood officials selling tissue from aborted fetuses. (No wrongdoing was found.) According to Business Insider, NARAL is buying mobile billboards in Blackburn’s district focused on her opposition to equal-pay legislation.

From Texas to Tennessee

The Texas law required that doctors providing abortions have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles and follow regulations for ambulatory (outpatient) surgical centers.

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the majority opinion that the law posed an unconstitutional obstacle to women seeking abortions, without offering new health benefits.

Tennessee’s rules—some of which passed even before Amendment 1 gave the state legislature more power to restrict abortions in 2014—are almost the same, except Tennessee requires abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a hospital in the same or an adjacent county.

These standards effectively inhibit or eliminate clinics that provide abortions, and caused one of Knoxville’s three providers to shut down, says Tory Mills, external affairs manager for Planned Parenthood in Knoxville.

Many East Tennessee hospitals are religiously-affiliated and reluctant to grant admitting privileges to abortion doctors, Mills says. Another factor is that some hospitals require that doctors send a certain number of patients to the hospital each year to maintain admitting privileges, and abortions are generally uncomplicated procedures that rarely result in the need for hospital admission.

Outpatient surgical centers must be able to handle a surgical procedure with anesthesia in a way a hospital would, the doctors must have certain professional qualifications, and the buildings are required to have specific dimensions or accommodations more traditional for a hospital providing overnight care.

Mills says abortion advocates were watching the Supreme Court decision anxiously because it could set a precedent leading to the rollback of similar laws limiting clinics in other states. Brunner says several national groups are gearing up to file lawsuits challenging these laws.

Although NARAL is a national organization, Brunner says its goal is to help galvanize grassroots local support by helping connect groups that are already working on women’s issues and raise their profile.

“I think it’s always good to have more boots on the ground, especially if they’re focused on change that needs to happen at the community level,” Mills says. “I think it’s hard to be vocal (about supporting abortion access) in some places, including Knoxville…. I think a lot of people are in the closet about it.”

S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at

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