People fill the hallways outside a Georgia Legislature committee room protesting against House Bill 481, the “heartbeat bill” that would outlaw most abortions at about six weeks into a pregnancy. (JASON GETZ/SPECIAL TO THE AJC)
Photo: Jason Getz
Photo: Jason Getz

AJC poll: Strong support for Roe; opinion closer on ‘heartbeat bill’

Seven of 10 Georgia voters say they oppose overturning the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that guaranteed the right to an abortion, according to a new Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll.

Those surveyed were more closely split on a pending state law that would outlaw the procedure at about six weeks in most cases. Gov. Brian Kemp is expected to sign the abortion legislation.

About 49% oppose the bill, according to the poll, with about 44% saying they support it. Nearly 6% of respondents said they neither supported nor opposed the measure.

Those with opinions had strong ones — about 39% of those polled said they “strongly opposed” the legislation and almost 26% “strongly support” it.

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The poll results highlight how deeply polarizing the issue is for Georgians.

Bobbi Keith, a 48-year-old homemaker from Savannah, said she believes abortions should be allowed in certain circumstances.

“It should always be a woman’s choice, but there have to be some circumstances involved,” she said. “If it’s molestation or rape or something like that, I think it’s more (acceptable) than just someone that just had a one-night-stand and gets pregnant.”

Amy O’Sullivan, a 58-year-old Milton resident, said it’s not the government’s job to limit access to abortion.

“I don’t think it’s right to turn around and tell somebody what they can and can’t do with their own body when it comes abortion,” she said.

The poll of 774 registered voters was conducted March 24 to Monday by the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs Survey Research Center. The margin of error is 3.5 percentage points.

The AJC polled voters across Georgia about their thoughts on abortion, including the recently passed House Bill 481, which would ban most abortions when a doctor can detect a “heartbeat” — usually about six weeks into a pregnancy, before many women even realize they are pregnant.

Current Georgia law allows abortions to be performed until 20 weeks.

What is a heartbeat is at the center of dispute.

Supporters say it should be used to establish when life begins. Doctors who oppose the legislation, however, said what appears to be a heartbeat at six weeks signals the practice motions of developing tissues that could not on their own power a fetus without the mother.

O’Sullivan, who said she has raised three chronically ill children, said when she was pregnant the third time, the doctor told her abortion was an option.

“I was told to accept he would be sick or terminate my pregnancy with my youngest,” she said. “I looked at my husband and I said, ‘I don’t think I can do it (abort).’ But that was my decision.”

There are currently about 20 lawsuits involving abortion — including several “heartbeat” laws — up for consideration by the U.S. Supreme Court that could be used to challenge the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide.

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Georgia anti-abortion activists hope the state’s “heartbeat bill” will be the one that overturns the court’s ruling.

But poll respondents across nearly all demographics said they don’t believe Roe v. Wade should be overturned.

Nearly 58% of those responding to the AJC poll said they believed abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Almost 38% of respondents said they believed the procedure should be illegal in all or most cases. Nearly 5% declined to answer the question.

The only groups polled who said they thought Roe v. Wade should be reversed were those who consider themselves “very conservative” — at almost 70% — and about 56% of those with a family income of less than $25,000 a year.

Nearly 50% of Republicans, 83% of independents and 88% of Democrats in Georgia said the decision shouldn’t be overturned.

M.V. “Trey” Hood III, a political science professor and director of UGA’s Survey Research Center, said while there has been some national support for limits on abortion, people generally don’t want to outlaw the procedure altogether.

“Georgians may be viewing the new law, rightly or wrongly, as placing curbs on the procedure,” he said.

A national Gallup poll from July 2018 found that 64% of those surveyed did not want to overturn Roe v. Wade.

But Keith, the Savannah homemaker, said she believes the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortions up until a fetus is “viable” — usually around the third trimester — should be reversed.

“By that time, it’s no longer a fetus,” said the mother of two. “You can find out the baby’s sex at that point. It’s developed to the point that it’s a baby to me.”

How people felt about access to abortion fell along party lines. About 80% of Democrats said they think abortion should be legal in most or all cases compared with about 67% of Republicans who believe the procedure should be banned in most or all cases.

Kemp, who made a campaign promise to sign the nation’s most restrictive abortion law, is expected to sign HB 481 sometime this month. The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia has already said it will file a lawsuit challenging the legislation.

If it becomes law, Georgia still would allow later abortions in cases of rape, incest, if the life of the mother is in danger or in instances of “medical futility,” when a fetus would not be able to survive after birth.

Someone who has become pregnant after an incident of rape or incest would have to file a police report to have the abortion performed.

Roopville auto mechanic Ben Sundling, 40, said being a Christian leads him to oppose abortion in general. But if someone who is a victim of rape or incest wanted to get an abortion, he thinks it should be allowed.

“There should be some guidelines to when you can get one,” he said. “They shouldn’t just 100% have the option to do an abortion for convenience.”

The new law would also allow parents, once a heartbeat is detected, to claim an embryo on their taxes as a dependent and it would be counted toward the state’s population.

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