The Equal Rights Amendment states that no person’s rights should be denied on the basis of sex, but it hasn’t been ratified by enough states to actually make it into the Constitution. One more state is needed, and some Republicans and Democrats want that to be Georgia. But the effort could be derailed by a far-right argument that the amendment could increase abortions.
Democratic state Sen. Nan Orrock is one of the leaders of the renewed battle. She said it’s about “an old, age-old story of women having to fight to gain their rights and break through the glass ceiling.”
It’s the latest moment in the long fight with roots in the suffrage movement, in her view. And this battle is very similar to the last time there was a big push to ratify the amendment in the 1970s, Orrock said. “Except, that I think that the younger generations look at it as sheer foolishness that anybody would oppose stating that equality of the sexes should be part of the Constitution.”
While the idea seems simple, an argument about abortion has complicated things.
At least one Republican who had signed onto the bill has changed his mind. Sen. Matt Brass of Newnan is anti-abortion and said he’s gotten calls from worried constituents and felt he wasn’t “best representing them” by staying on the bill.
He said they argue the amendment would open a legal door to more abortions.
“I don’t know if all that stuff’s true, if it does do all that, but I’m just not willing to risk it,” he said. “It boiled down to, am I willing to risk a child’s life to see if it’s correct or not? And I’m not.”
Anti-abortion groups argue that in other states, the amendment has been used to mandate federal money for abortion since it’s a procedure only done on women. They have been lobbying lawmakers like Brass, and sending letters like this one. A conservative talk radio host out of Macon, Erick Erickson, also has dedicated much time to the argument.
“The current [amendment] language that’s being considered … would unintentionally remove all pro-life laws in the country if there were lawsuits that challenged them on the basis of the [amendment],” said Joshua Edmonds, director of the Georgia Life Alliance. Edmonds cited a case from New Mexico that resulted in medically necessary abortions being funded by Medicaid, on the basis of the Equal Rights Amendment.
Democratic state Sen. Jen Jordan said ultimately this is about women’s health — and especially, poor women’s health.
“Their argument is that Medicaid maybe could be used at some point in time, to cover a medically necessary abortion. Well what medically necessary means is that a young woman is diagnosed with cervical cancer, she can’t be treated for cervical cancer because she’s pregnant. And the doctor tells her it’s in her best interest to have an abortion. And when I say that, I mean an otherwise legal abortion.”
Most women with money, Jordan said, can pay for that themselves. So this argument only affects women without the money to cover that abortion, in Jordan’s evaluation.
But not all Republicans buy the argument from the far-right.
Republican Sen. Renee Unterman is a strong anti-abortion lawmaker who is also a leader on the amendment, and she is not jumping ship.
“Unfortunately, they link the [Equal Rights Amendment] with the abortion argument and are trying to tag onto it to kill the bill,” she said. Unterman said she did her “homework” before signing onto the bill.
Sen. Chuck Hufstetler is also an anti-abortion Republican and a signer. He doesn’t buy the argument that the amendment will affect abortion either and intends to remain on board.
“The language of the bill is pretty clear to me,” he said.
The connection between abortion and federal money has already been decided by the courts, according to Neil Kinkopf, a constitutional law professor at Georgia State University. “In fact, arguments for public funding of abortions have been made … and the Supreme Court has repeatedly rejected them.”
Kinkopf said, “There’s nothing about what’s pending before the Georgia Legislature that would in any way have a legal effect on the abortion question or any abortion question.”
Kinkopf also pointed out that federal legislation needs to pass in order to even add the amendment to the Constitution, regardless of what Georgia does. The last deadline for states to ratify it expired in 1982, so that deadline would need to be reopened.
But the anti-abortion lobby stands by their position and has made fighting the amendment a top priority. And that has hijacked the proposal, Sen. Jordan said.
“It’s become a political football almost, and it’s putting people in a really tough position,” she said. People like Republicans with possible primary pressure from the right.
Orrock said the lobby has “organized around [the amendment] and beat up on Republicans.”
“Some of them feel they have to run for cover now because the pot’s being stirred,” she said.