Health, Politics

The Abortion Fight In Georgia Could Echo Nationally

Members of the Handmaid Coalition protest HB 481 outside the state Capitol. The bill would prohibit most abortions after six weeks.
Members of the Handmaid Coalition protest HB 481 outside the state Capitol. The bill would prohibit most abortions after six weeks.
Credit Sam Whitehead / WABE

Late Monday afternoon, Mike Griffin, with the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, stood in a quiet corner of the Georgia Capitol building.

He balanced a selfie stick in one hand as he recorded a video on his smartphone to share with church members on social media.

“You be praying that this bill will move,” he said. “We know it’s gonna be absolutely one of the greatest pro-life bills that have ever been passed, and we’re excited.”

Griffin was talking about HB 481. The bill, which is currently working its way through the state legislature, would ban most abortions after six weeks when a fetal heartbeat can generally be detected.

Griffin has supported similar bills for years, but he hasn’t felt this confident in a while.

“I really believe that the big difference this year, is that you have a governor that was elected who made it one of his signature pieces of legislation to be a heartbeat bill,” he said.

Gov. Brian Kemp backed up that campaign pledge last week, saying he’d sign the bill if it makes it through the legislature.

“This is just the next step in the fight for women’s autonomy,” said Staci Fox, CEO of Planned Parenthood Southeast. “Right now, it’s about abortion. Before that, we were fighting about birth control. Before that, we were fighting about women’s right to vote.”

Fox says her organization plans to fight HB 481 every step of the way, including by showing up at the Capitol to lobby lawmakers this week.

But she says she feels the winds shifting: not just in Georgia, but nationally. For instance, Fox points to President Donald Trump targeting abortion in his State of the Union speech last month.

“We’ve been in these fights before, but I think the rhetoric that’s been going on in this country has emboldened this activity that we’re seeing all over the country,” she said.

Georgia isn’t the only state trying to restrict access to abortion. A handful of others are considering heartbeat bills. Lawmakers in Tennessee passed one just last week.

“I think those who oppose women’s bodily autonomy in this country feel like they have some sort of path here,” Fox said.

That’s certainly the feeling Jessica DuBois has had recently. She’s with Georgia Right to Life, which opposes abortion.

“I believe that there is optimism,” she said. “These issues typically never see the light of day.”

DuBois attributes that optimism to signals from state and national leaders.

But she points out that something else inspires bills like Georgia’s HB 481: efforts to expand access to abortions in states such as New York and Virginia.

“I believe that these heartbeat bills are partially in response to what’s happening within other states,” DuBois said.

Still, DuBois says her group doesn’t support Georgia’s heartbeat bill in its current form.

HB 481 would allow abortions up to up to 20 weeks in the case of rape or incest. Georgia Right to Life doesn’t want those exceptions.

“We get the politics of it,” DuBois said. “We understand that this is going to more likely pass with these exceptions in it, but we just can’t support that. We’re picking and choosing who gets to live, and who doesn’t.”

Reproductive rights advocates, like Tamara Stevens, say the bill will set off a legal fight.

She’s with the Handmaid Coalition. They’ve been outside the Capitol this week, wearing red cloaks and white bonnets like characters from The Handmaid’s Tale,  the dystopian novel where women are seen as property.

“Governor Kemp has said he will sign this bill into law full well knowing that it is going to be challenged in courts, and it is going to cost Georgia taxpayers millions to defend an unconstitutional law,” Stevens said.

Heartbeat bills passed in other states have ended up in court, because they conflict with abortions protections established in Roe v. Wade.

Stevens worries Georgia lawmakers want that to happen with HB 481 and for such a case to eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

“They want to be the state that helps overturn Roe v. Wade,” she said. “That’s it. It basically comes down to ego and controlling women’s bodies.”

“What we’re really seeing is this response to the Kavanaugh appointment in the US Supreme Court,” said Elizabeth Nash, with the Guttmacher Institute.

Nash tracks abortion bills in statehouses across the country and says Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment pushed the court into more conservative territory.

“And we’re now seeing a lot of state legislatures looking to that reshaped court as a way to overturn abortion rights,” she said.

Nash says the U.S Supreme Court has yet to take up a heartbeat bill case, but they may have plenty of opportunities in the near future. She says about 10 other states are actively considering bills like Georgia’s HB 481.