The so-called "Life Defense Act" has taken its first victim: On Aug. 10, Knoxville's 38-year-old surgical abortion clinic, the Volunteer Women's Medical Clinic, shut its doors because of the new law.
The legislation, which was passed last session and went into effect on July 1, requires all physicians who perform abortions in the state to have admitting privileges at a hospital in the same county or a county adjacent to the county in which the abortion is performed.
Although the state's abortion clinics were all already licensed ambulatory surgical centers, subject to inspection by the state Department of Health, proponents of the legislation insisted it was necessary for women's health and safety—never mind that abortion providers were being held to a higher standard than any number of other surgical outpatient centers, including providers of Lasik and dental surgery. In fact, the "Life Defense Act" was originally put forward by Tennessee Right to Life and is one of a number of similar bills that have been enacted across the country, all with one goal in mind: to make it that much harder for women to get an abortion.
State Republicans were gleeful about VWMC's closure last week; Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey tweeted a link to an anti-abortion website's coverage of the closure, and state Sen. Stacey Campfield wrote on his blog, "One down. Eight to go," referring to the state's eight other abortion clinics. In Knoxville, a group of anti-abortion activists is planning a "Prayer Service of Thanksgiving/Rosary" on Monday night at Tyson Park to celebrate.
But for the rest of the community, VWMC's closure is worrisome. "We're quite saddened," says Corinne Rovetti, the co-director of Knoxville's other surgical abortion clinic, the Knoxville Center for Reproductive Health. "It could easily have been us."
Former VWMC director Deb Walsh declined to be interviewed for this story, but in a letter she posted Aug. 10 on the website Abortion Care Network, she wrote, "I've been able to keep the doors open and the phone staff working up until this week. We've been working on legal remedies, injunction, etc., but I was unable to bridge the financial gap of paying the monthly lease and operating expenses without knowing when we could resume seeing patients."
Up until July, VWMC had one physician on staff, Dr. Richard Manning. Despite being a board-certified ob/gyn, Manning, 69, decided to retire instead of attempting to try to get hospital admitting privileges. VWMC planned to use the services of the practicing physician at KCRH as a stopgap until it could find another physician willing to work at the clinic. But shortly after receiving admitting privileges, Dr. Morris Campbell had a stroke and died, leaving both clinics in the lurch.
As of now, KCRH is still providing abortions, although the first doctor who stepped up to fill in Dr. Campbell's shoes has already stepped aside after severe harassment from a local anti-abortion activist. Rovetti says two other doctors have committed to providing abortions through December, but after that, she says, "We don't know."
"We really could use some more hours, now with Volunteer closing," Rovetti says. "We are still recruiting for other physicians. But we're open. We're very happy to be here and deeply honored to be providing safe, legal, and qualified medical services to the women of East Tennessee."
The Planned Parenthood clinic in East Knoxville still offers what are termed medical abortions—i.e., doses of RU-486, which induces a miscarriage in early-stage pregnancies. Both KCRH and Planned Parenthood also provide other medical services, like Pap smears, STD testing, and access to birth control, and serve women all over East Tennessee; neither Chattanooga nor the tri-cities have an abortion clinic.
It remains to be seen whether the "Life Defense Act" will be challenged in court. In an interview Metro Pulse conducted with the Center for Reproductive Rights in July, Jordan Goldberg, the state advocacy counsel, said the legislation was likely unconstitutional under Tennessee state law. Last week, Vicki Saporta, president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation, told the Tennessean that a legal challenge may be possible.
But while the state's other abortion clinics may still be open, the battle to close them is far from over. Campfield and other legislators have made noise about introducing "personhood" legislation, which would define embryos as human from the moment of conception and would not just criminalize abortion but would also outlaw things like in vitro fertilization. And in 2014, there will be a measure on the ballot—pushed through by the Republican state Legislature—asking voters whether there should be a "fundamental right" to abortion in Tennessee.
In the meantime, Rovetti just hopes KCRH won't face the same tough decision that Walsh did. "We are more hopeful than we have been," Rovetti says. "We are just thankful that some physicians have stepped up to help us."