Why debate over Georgia’s ‘heartbeat’ law isn’t just about abortion

Abortion rights supporters hold protest signs and chant as they gather outside the Georgia Capitol last month during a rally in Atlanta. The ACLU, Planned Parenthood and other abortion rights activists held the rally to call on states around the country to stop passing restrictive abortion laws. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Abortion rights supporters hold protest signs and chant as they gather outside the Georgia Capitol last month during a rally in Atlanta. The ACLU, Planned Parenthood and other abortion rights activists held the rally to call on states around the country to stop passing restrictive abortion laws. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

As is customary at the end of Sunday school, my classmates and I gathered one morning recently in a circle for prayer. Before bowing our heads, one of them asked that we pray for a young couple who’d had to make the hard choice between the mother’s life and that of their unborn child.

The mother, she said, was about five months into her pregnancy when doctors diagnosed her with cancer. The couple decided to have an abortion but naturally, were grieving their loss.

I can’t imagine how painful and agonizing that must have been, but it drove home, at least for me, how important it is that our lawmakers, in their rush to ban abortion outright, leave room for parents and their doctors to make such decisions.

A week after Netfilx said it would rethink its investment in Georgia because of the Heartbeat Abortion Law, pro-life advocates are calling on Georgians to boycott the streaming service by canceling their subscriptions.

In the past few months, at least five states, Georgia included, have passed so-called “heartbeat” bills, banning the procedure at various stages of pregnancy and with few or no exceptions. And last week, the U.S. Supreme Court waded into the issue, leaving intact lower court rulings in Indiana that invalidated a broader measure that would prevent a woman from having an abortion based on gender, race or disability but upholding the state’s law requiring abortion providers to bury or cremate fetal remains.

Abortion rights groups took that to mean that the Supreme Court does not consider a fetus to be human.

Anti-abortion activists countered that the provision is a step toward recognizing fetal tissue not as medical waste but as human remains deserving dignified treatment.

I’d hope so, which is why I was struck by Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey’s pronouncement that the time for choice is before pregnancy, not after.

It was my sentiment exactly.

RELATED: Why ‘heartbeat bill’ in Georgia has stirred up passions on both sides

Ivey offered her assessment to a bank of television cameras after signing into law a bill that bans doctors from performing abortions during any stage of pregnancy, punishable by up to 99 years in prison.

The legislation, which passed May 14, is the most restrictive abortion legislation in the country and is likely to be struck down by the courts.

Whether you agree with a total ban on abortion or not, it’s hard for me to fathom any woman believes abortion should be used as a form of birth control. It shouldn’t and under no circumstance. Birth control should be used to prevent pregnancy instead.

But is it really that simple?

A.J. Marsden, an assistant professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Fla., and a former U.S. Army surgical nurse, doesn’t think so. This debate goes much deeper than that, she told me.

“The issue isn’t whether women would rather use abortion or other contraceptives for pregnancy prevention, but instead whether other contraceptives are affordably and reliably available to her,” Marsden said.

Marsden said, for instance, that research from Washington University in St. Louis found support for the idea that providing birth control to women at no cost significantly reduces the rate of unplanned pregnancies and reduces abortion rates. In fact, abortion rates were cut by 62% to 78%. Furthermore, long-term methods, such as IUDs and implants, were more effective than short-term methods.

“Many insurance companies, however, do not cover these types of birth control methods, and it could cost the woman more than $800 for a long-term birth control method,” Marsden said. “Sadly, across the U.S., 6% to 22% of women are uninsured.”

Further research, she said, backs this up.

RELATED: Kemp signs anti-abortion ‘heartbeat’ legislation, sets up legal fight

First, the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit that researches and analyzes sexual and reproductive issues, found that unplanned pregnancies occur five times more often for women living at or below the federal poverty level.

“Those living under the poverty level are less likely to have a job that provides insurance; therefore, they are less likely to have affordable birth control provided to them, and will have to pay for it out of pocket,” Marsden said. “If you are living paycheck to paycheck, you may have to choose between feeding your family and birth control.”

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

And while Planned Parenthood is an excellent option for uninsured women, she said that many states restrict and prohibit the agency from receiving reimbursements under their state’s Medicaid program. And due to the federal and state cuts, many Planned Parenthood centers are closing their doors.

Second, research shows that a proper sex education can help increase contraceptive use and decrease unplanned pregnancies.

The problem, Marsden said, is many states — especially those in the South — restrict the type of sex education offered to teens to focus almost exclusively on abstinence only.

“Clearly these programs do not work as the South consistently has the highest teen pregnancy rates in the U.S. Under these programs, teens never learn about proper contraceptive options or use,” she said. “Having taught human sexuality classes at the college level for the past eight years, I can attest to this.”

Marsden said she’s had several students admit to not understanding basic sexual education, including a 23-year-old who didn’t know how women got pregnant.

I know. That’s hard to believe.

But’s it’s equally hard to believe that these bans are happening because state officials actually value the life of children.

RELATED: Georgia among 10 worst states to raise a family

I was flummoxed when Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed the state's anti-abortion bill into law, making it illegal to receive an abortion once a heartbeat is detected in the womb (usually about six weeks into a pregnancy and before many women know they're pregnant), then turned right around and vetoed a bill that would have required recess for the state's elementary school students.

His reason?

“This legislation would impose unreasonable burdens on educational leaders without meaningful justification,” he explained.

But it isn’t just Kemp sending mixed messages about his love for children.

For years, the state has ranked among the worst when it comes to child well-being. So too have Alabama and Mississippi, where I grew up.

In its annual End of Childhood Report released last year, Save the Children ranked Georgia 44th in the nation on measures of child poverty, with 1 in 3 rural children in the state growing up in poverty.

Another ranking from WalletHub ranked the state the ninth worst to raise a family, thanks to low scores in education, child care, health and safety.

How can this be? Why should women, and men for that matter, believe Georgia really cares about the children it can’t see when it cares so poorly for those it can see?

Let's think about that. And before the film industry, which generates an estimated 92,000 jobs, pulls out of the state, I hope it'll consider how that's going to help the children it sees. I mean can the pot really call the kettle black?

Come on, people.

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