Doctors who perform abortions in Tennessee could see their names listed online, and women who undergo the procedures could be unintentionally identified under a bill pending in the state legislature.
State lawmakers are debating a measure that would require the Department of Health to publish more details about abortions, bringing Tennessee into a roiling, state-by-state battle over how to regulate abortion procedures.
Supporters say the bill, scheduled to come up Wednesday in a state House committee, only requires state health officials to post information online that they already collect. But critics say the measure is intended to intimidate women and doctors involved in abortions, even in emergency situations.
“I think publicizing this information will do nothing but cause serious consequences,” said state Rep. Gary Odom, D-Nashville. “This is dangerous. This is a dangerous piece of legislation.”
Known as the Life Defense Act of 2012, or House Bill 3808, the measure gives Tennessee lawmakers a rare opportunity to tighten regulations on abortion, which the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled in 2000 is a right protected by the state constitution.
That ruling has kept Tennessee lawmakers from considering controversial proposals floated elsewhere in the nation, such as a new law in Virginia going into effect July 1 that will require women to receive an ultrasound before abortions. Similar measures have passed in Oklahoma, North Carolina and Texas, although court challenges to them are pending.
The Life Defense Act contains two parts. The first would require doctors to have admitting privileges at a hospital near where they perform abortions, while the second would require the Department of Health to release more information on abortions, including the name of the doctor who performed the procedure and demographics about the women who receive them.
The measure’s sponsor, Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, said at an initial hearing on the bill earlier this month that the reporting requirement writes into law a form that the Department of Health already asks providers to fill out whenever they perform an abortion.
“The Department of Health already collects all of the data, but they don’t publish it,” he said. “All we’re asking is that the data they already collect be made public.”
Hill said the bill was suggested by Tennessee Right to Life, an anti-abortion group. Brian Harris, the group’s president, said the bill would give people better information about abortion in Tennessee.
“I think it’s fair for folks on both sides to see how prevalent abortion is in our counties and in our communities,” he said.
The Tennessee Medical Association and Planned Parenthood, meanwhile, have expressed several concerns about the bill.
They say the reports required by the measure could be used to identify women who have abortions.
The bill would require the publication of data — including the age, race, education and number of children — of women who receive abortions. The Department of Health reports such information, but it aggregates the data by region, making it impossible for others to figure out who underwent an abortion procedure.
The Life Defense Act attempts to protect patient privacy by requiring state health officials to keep the names of those who receive abortions private.
But the bill also requires the Department of Health to release patient data broken down by county. Critics say that could reveal the identities of some women who receive abortions, particularly in small, rural communities.
“We have many small counties in the state,” Odom said. “There’s going to be circumstances where that woman’s going to be identified in that county.”
The bill also could endanger doctors who perform abortions, opponents say. For the first time, state health officials would have to gather the names of doctors who perform abortion procedures. That information could be used by abortion opponents to target those doctors, foes of the bill say.
Abortion specialists are not the only doctors who would have to submit such information. Opponents say other practitioners, such as obstetricians who perform abortion procedures during emergencies or miscarriages, would also have to report their involvement.
“In an environment where doctors are victims of violence — and we’ve had physicians who provide abortion care murdered in the past few years — I think this is an attempt to intimidate and allow for providers to be terrorized,” said Jeff Teague, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Middle and East Tennessee.
But Harris said the bill would not make the reporting requirements for abortion any more extensive than for other medical procedures.
“Abortion should not be treated any different than any other health practice in the state,” he said. “That’s all we’re asking for.”
The bill cleared a House subcommittee March 6 by an 8-5 vote along party lines. But Hill put off debate in the House Health and Human Resources Committee last week.
Hill said he plans to bring the bill up on Wednesday. He also said he plans to address opponents’ concerns at that meeting, but he declined to comment further, saying potential changes are still being worked out.
Greg Zelizer, director of government affairs for the Tennessee Medical Association, expressed confidence that the changes would head off some of the opponents’ fears.
“I’ve talked to Matthew, and he understands the difficulty,” Zelizer said last week. “In no way does he or those who brought this legislation want harm to come to anybody.”