A purified debate over abortion makes its debut in Gwinnett County

Surrounded by supporters of the bill, including state Sen. Renee Unterman (from left), R - Buford, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, first lady Marty Kemp, and House Speaker David Ralston, Gov. Brian Kemp puts his signature to HB 481, the anti-abortion "heartbeat bill" in May. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Surrounded by supporters of the bill, including state Sen. Renee Unterman (from left), R - Buford, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, first lady Marty Kemp, and House Speaker David Ralston, Gov. Brian Kemp puts his signature to HB 481, the anti-abortion "heartbeat bill" in May. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

That the middle ground is disappearing in the 46-year fight over legalized abortion became apparent last week when former Vice President Joe Biden flipped during his visit to Atlanta.

The front-running Democratic candidate for president renounced his decades-long support for the Hyde Amendment, which bars the expenditure of federal funds for abortions.

That swath of neutrality has allowed a space for politicians like Biden, a Catholic, to express his personal opposition to the procedure while acknowledging the right of most women to decide for themselves.

But Democrats aren’t the only party dispensing with subtleties when it comes to abortion. Not by a long shot. And certainly not in metro Atlanta.

On Thursday afternoon, supporters of Georgia’s new anti-abortion “heartbeat” law gathered at the headquarters of the Gwinnett GOP to declare that support for the measure stands at the center of their plan to “take back” their county from encroaching Democrats.

Republicans who oppose House Bill 481 need not apply. “We’ve been told we have to give up on some issues and take a step back,” said Ed Muldrow, the new chairman of the Gwinnett GOP.

Abortion won’t be one of those issues, he quickly added. And unproven newcomers to the fight will be greeted with skepticism.

“From here on out, if you are not with us, you’re against us. That’s the bottom line to this whole conversation,” Muldrow said. “We’re going to pursue candidates who believe like we believe.”

Even President Donald Trump took a back seat at the Thursday event, earning hardly a mention. Instead, center stage was given over to a measure that many other Republicans fear will cost them support among women voters, particularly in suburban Atlanta.

State Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, was the author of HB 481. He compared abortion to segregation as an issue that has taken decades for society to confront. Setzler spoke of the reluctance he still experiences when he brings up the topic.

“In the public square, in the House in the Legislature, it seems uncouth to mention abortion,” Setzler said. “We can’t say it in polite company. You can’t say it at cocktail receptions. In fact, many pastors feel it’s even very difficult to talk about it in a church setting.”

Setzler wasn’t the only participant to tie abortion to race. Gwinnett has become a county in which whites are no longer the majority demographic. Muldrow, the new Gwinnett GOP chairman, is African-American.

So is Lisa Noel Babbage, the local party’s treasurer, who linked abortion not just to race, but illegal immigration. “Now we have no choice but to contend with those who are coming from other countries because our population is dwindling,” she said. “And now we have a huddled mass of immigrants that are illegally coming to our back door. But guess what Lady Liberty says — those huddled masses yearning to breathe free? They’re in the wombs of American women.”

Two lawmakers from Gwinnett were also given speaking roles. State Sens. P.K. Martin, R-Lawrenceville, and Renee Unterman, R-Buford, were enthusiastic supporters of HB 481. “We have been threatened and we have been told, ‘You vote for this bill and you’re out of office,’” Unterman said.

Unterman is, in fact, giving up her state Senate seat, but to run for the Seventh District congressional seat now held by U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Lawrenceville. Her support for HB 481 — she carried the bill in the Senate — is unlikely to hurt her in a Republican primary.

But in a November 2020 general election — well, regardless of whether Unterman is the Republican nominee, the Seventh District contest will be one of the ways the Gwinnett GOP’s double-down strategy will be measured.

One problem with purity strategies is that the ideal is always beyond reach. On the Democratic side, having given up on the Hyde Amendment, Biden will now be pressed to say whether he supports Medicaid funding for abortion.

When Setzler first filed HB 481, the legislation’s ban on abortions after roughly six weeks — before many women know they’re pregnant, included no exception for rape or incest. Both were added later by a House committee. Unterman said the addition was essential to her support for HB 481.

When I asked Setzler why he hadn’t included the exceptions in the original version of the bill, the lawmaker thought long and hard before answering. “There was a feeling in the committee process that the liberty interest of the mother was heightened in cases in which she was raped,” he said.

Another hazard of purity strategies is they require an enforcement mechanism — sticks in addition to carrots. And sticks aren’t always morale boosters.

The Thursday event was organized by the Family Policy Alliance of Georgia, a new conservative Christian group — it made its lobbying debut at the state Capitol this year — with ties to Colorado-based Focus on the Family.

Cole Muzio, the president and executive director, promised support for every Republican lawmaker in Gwinnett County who supported HB 481, and opposition to every lawmaker who opposed it.

But it is more complicated than that. Soon after the Legislature gave final passage to HB 481, Muzio’s group issued a list of 12 members of the state House — where the measure passed with only two votes to spare — who opposed the bill and so would be targeted for defeat in 2020.

Two of the marked legislators are Republicans. State Rep. Butch Parrish of Swainsboro is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, and thus an intimate member of Speaker David Ralston’s leadership team.

The other GOP target is state Rep. Deborah Silcox of Sandy Springs.

They weren’t the only Republicans who voted against HB 481 — so did state Rep. Sharon Cooper of Marietta. I asked Muzio how Parrish and Silcox made his list.

“They’re the two who voted twice against the bill, and Deborah Silcox spoke against the bill,” Muzio said.

Cooper walked on the bill once, and voted against it the second time. But she’s also chairman of the House Health and Human Services Committee, and let HB 481 pass out of her committee for a floor vote.

It was an interesting distinction. Certainly the strategy bears watching. Whether Muzio will be able to find Republicans willing to risk challenging Parrish and Silcox in a primary will be a first test of its chances for success.

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