SisterSong v. Brian Kemp is part lawsuit, part feminist manifesto

Andrea Young, executive director of ACLU of Georgia, speaks during an pro-choice rally outside the state Capitol following Gov. Brian Kemp’s signing of HB 481 in Atlanta in May. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Andrea Young, executive director of ACLU of Georgia, speaks during an pro-choice rally outside the state Capitol following Gov. Brian Kemp’s signing of HB 481 in Atlanta in May. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

It was Thursday morning, and I was in Andrea Young's office a full 24 hours before the case of SisterSong v. Brian Kemp was to be filed in U.S. district court, challenging Georgia's new anti-abortion "heartbeat" law.

We had all been waiting for this shoe to drop.

House Bill 481 was passed by a GOP-controlled Legislature in March and signed by Governor Kemp last month with the specific intention of generating a legal case that might reach the U.S. Supreme Court — and lead to the overturning of Roe v. Wade. We are now on that road.

Young is executive director of the ACLU of Georgia, the legal operation behind Friday’s action. We were well into our conversation when she got to the cultural nub of the thing. SisterSong v. Brian Kemp is equal parts federal lawsuit and feminist manifesto.

Supporters of Georgia’s “heartbeat” law would negate the 1973 Supreme Court decision that says a fetus’ viability outside the body of the mother is the point at which the state has a vested interest in a pregnancy. The law signed by Kemp gives an embryo only weeks along a legal status equal to that of the mother.

SisterSong v. Brian Kemp amounts to a draft treatise on the legal and social implications of that shift.

“If anything has changed since Roe v. Wade, it’s how disruptive it would be to our society if it were overturned. There’s no one of child-bearing age today that lived without Roe v. Wade,” Young said.

“I can remember in Georgia when even the women’s colleges in Georgia didn’t have women presidents. Now the students wouldn’t stand for it,” she said. “The role of women has changed so substantially, and it’s been able to do that because women have been able to make the decisions about their own reproductive choices.”

The lead plaintiff in the lawsuit is the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, a nod to the ACLU’s contention that women of color are likely to be disproportionately impacted by the “heartbeat” law.

Also among the plaintiffs are seven women’s health care organizations that operate in Georgia, and three professors at Emory University School of Medicine with specialties in obstetrics and gynecology. All three are individual plaintiffs, acting independently of Emory. And all three are women.

Kemp’s name tops a long list of state officials named as defendants – officially, because a little-known provision of Georgia’s state constitution allows a governor to order the attorney general to prosecute specific individuals.

But one suspects that there are other reasons why some might want to see the governor personally attached to the lawsuit.

The language of the filing is searing. “[T]he rate at which Georgians, particularly black Georgians, die from pregnancy-related causes is among the highest in the nation,” it reads. “Rather than working to end those preventable deaths…the Legislature has instead chosen to criminalize abortion from the earliest stages of pregnancy.”

The “heartbeat” law would require Georgia mothers to carry to term after about six weeks — before most women know they’re pregnant. The lawsuit paints a picture of women and their doctors hauled before judges and juries if they run afoul of the law’s restrictions, which are to go into effect on Jan. 1.

The brief seeks to block enforcement — as has been the case with similar measures in a half-dozen or so other states. A hearing might come this fall. Friend-of-court briefs, in which outside parties weigh in on the impact of a case, would come if and when the case reaches the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

Young has a plan for that day. Certainly, you’ll have health care experts making statements about the “heartbeat” law’s impact on such things as medical school recruitment. But Young also intends to have prominent Georgia women weigh in, testifying to the impact that Roe v. Wade had on their careers.

The ACLU lawsuit alludes to a line generated by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in 1992 when it claims that the “heartbeat” law “undermines a woman’s ‘ability…to participate equally in the economic and social life of the nation.’”

There is a decades-long arc to this tale that can’t be ignored.

Andrea Young and I have several things in common. We are almost exactly the same age. A small stack of books on an office table beside her could serve as a touchstone for anyone of our generation — as teenagers or young parents: “Lord of the Flies,” “The Pentagon Papers,” “Slaughterhouse Five,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and something about a boy named Harry Potter.

We both also have a passing familiarity with Andrew Young, the ex-congressman, former U.N. ambassador and mayor of Atlanta. If pressed, I’m willing to concede that — as his daughter — she knows him better.

In 1990, having completed his two terms as mayor, Andrew Young ran for governor. He would ultimately lose a Democratic primary runoff to Zell Miller. Abortion was front-and-center in the contest. Roe v. Wade had been decided in 1973, but the U.S. Supreme Court had recently signaled that states were entitled to restrict the procedure, within limits.

Three decades later, two things stand out. First, the issue of abortion had yet to become a thoroughly partisan issue. Andrew Young won the endorsement of the most influential abortion rights groups. “He had three daughters,” explained Andrea Young, who was working in Washington at the time. Andrew Young’s support for abortion included Medicaid funding.

Miller, the lieutenant governor, favored legislation to require parental consent for abortions performed on minors.

But Roy Barnes, a Democratic state lawmaker making his first run at the office, was opposed to abortion. He earned an endorsement from Georgia Right to Life, which snubbed Johnny Isakson, the GOP nominee for governor.

Isakson’s 1990 position on abortion: He said a decision to end a pregnancy is personal and should be made by a woman, not the state. “I would not sign into law a bill prohibiting a woman from making that decision,” he said. A Republican party split on the issue doomed Isakson’s November race against Miller.

That has changed, of course. Republicans in Georgia are now scouring their ranks for “heartbeat” dissidents ripe for purging. Among Democrats, former Vice President Joe Biden has caved on his opposition to federal funding for abortions.

I said there was one more thing worth marking about that 1990 race. Back then, virtually all the people making decisions about abortion law in Georgia were men. On March 22, 2019, HB 418 passed the 56-member state Senate with the votes of one Republican woman and 33 Republican men. Twenty-nine years later, that’s the kind of thing that produces manifestos.