Supporters and opponents of Georgia’s anti-abortion fetal cardiac law, which a federal judge blocked from taking effect Jan. 1, will keep the measure in the spotlight during next year’s elections for the state Legislature and other offices. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Despite temporary block on new law, abortion to remain focus in 2020

Political strategists are readying a fight for seats in the Georgia Legislature next year where the debate over access to abortion will likely remain front and center, despite Tuesday’s decision by a federal judge to block the state’s new law.

The judge’s decision to temporarily block Georgia’s new anti-abortion law from taking effect as scheduled in January sets up a legal battle that could play out while the Legislature is in session. The next filing deadline in the court case is Jan. 18, less than a week after lawmakers return to Atlanta for the 2020 legislative session.

That not only sets up what Democrats believe will be a visible fight over abortion access, but could also lead to Republicans exploring alternative ways to limit the medical procedure through new legislation.

House Bill 481, the law now on hold, would outlaw most abortions once a doctor can detect fetal cardiac activity, which can be as early as six weeks into a pregnancy and before many women know they are pregnant. Under current Georgia law, passed by the Legislature in 2012, abortions are allowed through 20 weeks of gestation, or about 22 weeks of pregnancy.

Democrats hope the legal fight continues to fire up their base enough to recruit strong candidates to run for seats in Atlanta’s suburbs — chipping away at the stronghold Republicans have in the state House and Senate — and get their voters to the polls in November 2020.

“The lawsuit keeping the story alive during campaign season is really important for us,” Georgia Democratic Party spokeswoman Maggie Chambers said. “So many Georgians are energized by this bill. We know and they know the only way to stop this kind of policy agenda for good is to end Republican control of the House and Senate for good.”

The national abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America on Wednesday announced it is launching a digital advertising “educational campaign” that targets state legislators who voted in support of HB 481.

“Lawmakers will not be let off the hook for the votes they cast — especially when those votes are designed to hurt women and families and attack health care providers in a state already struggling to provide adequate care to Georgians,” NARAL Pro-Choice Georgia Director Laura Simmons said.

Republicans say their base is just as energized and fully expect to maintain the numbers they have, if not take a few seats away from Democratic lawmakers.

Cole Muzio, the president and executive director of the anti-abortion Family Policy Alliance of Georgia, has pledged to support Republican candidates who will challenge Democratic incumbents who voted against HB 481.

“There’s energy to recruit candidates, there’s energy to spend and give money, there’s energy to knock on doors, and there’s enthusiasm to put support behind those that voted for the bill,” Muzio said. “I think there’s a really strong sense that we can claim ground for life. Not an R or a D thing. But how do we increase the pro-life majority?”

Georgia Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, a Carrollton Republican, played down the impact abortion will have in the upcoming election.

“It will be one issue, but there are going to be multiple issues voters are thinking about next year,” he said.

In 1970 the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments for Georgia’s recently-passed abortion law. The case, Doe v. Bolton, was declared unconstitutional in 1973. That same day, Roe v. Wade was decided. Both decisions changed the abortion landscape in the United States. The AJC spoke with two Georgia residents, with opposing viewpoints, to get their thoughts on the abortion debate. Catherine Davis, president and founder of The Restoration Project, and Nina Altschiller, board member for Planned Parenthood Southeast, each had an abortion before Roe v. Wade was decided. The women speak on their decision to have the medical procedure and explain their hopes for Georgia’s laws in the future. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

New legislation?

At this time last year — just as the U.S. Senate was preparing to confirm the nomination of now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh — Georgia activists on both sides of the issue said they did not expect the state to consider legislation on the topic in 2019.

Anti-abortion activists seized upon the opportunity created after Kavanaugh’s confirmation, which tilted the bench in the favor of conservatives.

There are already about 20 lawsuits involving abortion that the U.S. Supreme Court could consider that would challenge Roe v. Wade, but supporters of Georgia’s new law said they believe it is the one that will overturn the landmark ruling in 1973 that established a woman’s right to abortion.

Again this year, Republican lawmakers say there are no plans to push new anti-abortion legislation next year and they instead want to let the court process play out. But Democrats — after being blindsided when Acworth Republican state Rep. Ed Setzler introduced HB 481 in February — said they are bracing for more legislation.

“Everybody just wonders what they will come up with next,” said Melita Easters, the executive director and founding chairwoman of Georgia’s WIN List. “There are so many different ways that those who oppose reproductive freedom can attempt to control women’s bodies and women’s autonomy over their medical choices.”

WIN List is a political action committee that backs women who support abortion rights.

One option could be to revive “trigger law” legislation that Gov. Brian Kemp initially supported that would ban almost all abortions in the state if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns its decision in Roe v. Wade. Kemp’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The legislation — House Bill 546, sponsored by state Rep. Jodi Lott, an Evans Republican and one of Kemp’s floor leaders — was introduced three days after Setzler’s bill and never received a hearing.

But Dugan said he’s not heard any desire to push additional abortion legislation next year.

“I don’t anticipate us bringing something else until this (case) is finalized,” he said.

A fight that will play out in court

The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia sued the state, saying HB 481 violates a woman’s constitutional right to abortion under Roe v. Wade.

ACLU of Georgia Legal Director Sean J. Young said Tuesday’s ruling allows Georgia abortion providers to continue to provide the procedure to those women who choose to have one.

“Now that women in Georgia can (continue to) access reproductive health care, we will move forward with this litigation to ensure that this unconstitutional abortion ban is permanently enjoined,” he said.

Lawyers will likely return to court early next year to argue the specifics of Georgia’s law. Attorneys for the ACLU said the new law is essentially a ban on abortions, but lawyers for the state said the procedure still could be performed before cardiac activity is detected.

Setzler said it was too early in the court process for abortion rights activists to celebrate the judge’s decision on the first procedural step.

“The ACLU of Georgia is high-fiving that they didn’t fumble the kickoff in their own end zone,” he said. “But we’re only beginning to get started in this process. This is the first possession in the first quarter of the game.”

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