Georgia abortion opponents liken ‘personhood’ to fight for civil rights

Georgia Speaker of the House David Ralston, left, and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, right, listen during a press conference as state Rep. Ed Setzler, the author of the state’s new anti-abortion “heartbeat” law, thanks his supporters following its signing by Gov. Brian Kemp. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Georgia Speaker of the House David Ralston, left, and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, right, listen during a press conference as state Rep. Ed Setzler, the author of the state’s new anti-abortion “heartbeat” law, thanks his supporters following its signing by Gov. Brian Kemp. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

The sponsor of Georgia’s new anti-abortion law compares civil rights activists who oppose the measure to plantation owners, saying they are trampling on the rights of the unborn just as owners ignored the humanity of slaves.

"Sadly, civil rights groups who crush the rights of unborn children remind me of 18th century plantation owners who, after winning their freedom from Britain, enslaved people of color to achieve their own economic goals," Acworth Republican state Rep. Ed Setzler told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

His comments are an example of how activists see abortion as an issue akin to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Setzler said he doesn't understand why groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union oppose extending rights to a fetus. The ACLU of Georgia is suing the state to keep the new law from going into effect.

Atlanta civil rights attorney David Walbert, who has written books about abortion law, called the argument “preposterous.”

“From a straight, factual, biological point of view, it is utterly false and grossly misleading to say that is human life,” said Walbert, who was a physicist before he became an attorney. “As a civil rights matter, to say this is human life is a fraud.”

Setzler and other supporters of the law say the measure takes a step toward achieving civil rights for all human beings — which they say should include those who have not yet been born.

During the very first hearing for House Bill 481 in March, which outlaws most abortions after a doctor can detect fetal cardiac activity — usually at about six weeks of pregnancy and before many women know they're pregnant — Setzler invoked an 1857 U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled that slaves and those of African descent were not citizens.

Setzler said, like Dred Scott v. Sandford, the 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade that guarantees nationwide access to abortion is also one the country’s highest court initially got wrong.

“We all know now that people of color are full human beings and always were,” Setzler said in March. “That same Supreme Court that didn’t recognize Dred Scott as a human being didn’t recognize a fetus as a human being.”

Anti-abortion activists for years have tried to legally establish the “personhood” of a fetus, which could grant rights to the unborn as early as conception. The activists say after America has slowly granted rights to groups of people over the years — whether it be counting black people as citizens or allowing women to vote — extending those rights to a fetus is the next natural step.

But ACLU of Georgia Executive Director Andrea Young said that argument falls apart when granting rights to one group strips the rights of another. The ACLU of Georgia has filed a lawsuit challenging the law, scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, on behalf of several state abortion providers and abortion rights advocates.

“There’s no way to advance the argument that they are making about a fertilized egg without doing away with the rights that women have to determine their own lives,” Young said. “That distinguishes this from any of the other examples they’re giving.”

Tying personhood to civil rights is an approach Setzler has expanded upon in the months since he first pushed for his legislation.

During a press conference last month in Duluth supporting candidates who oppose abortion, Setzler invoked the U.S. Supreme Court's 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling that affirmed segregation, as well as the 1955 beating death of Emmett Till and how that incident inspired Rosa Parks and ignited the civil rights movement.

“What’s been festering is the legal lie that by a 7-2 Supreme Court decision that somehow the child — the class of persons of unborn children — shouldn’t have rights,” Setzler said during the June press conference. “And just like Plessy v. Ferguson festered for five decades of injustice, the idea that an unborn child has no rights has been festering for five decades. And we are no longer going to accept it.”

Atlanta civil rights attorney Mark Begnaud said there is nothing in current law to support extending rights to a fetus.

“This argument is being used as a way to directly challenge Roe v. Wade … which balances states’ rights (to regulate abortion) with a woman’s right to bodily autonomy,” he said. “The argument they’re bringing up would run counter to established precedent. It is not a right that has been recognized in these cases.”

HB 481 includes several personhood provisions. The new law will allow parents to claim a fetus, once a “heartbeat” is detected, on their state taxes as a dependent and require state officials to count an unborn child toward Georgia’s population.

Other anti-abortion activists have also compared the establishment of “personhood” to the struggles black people and other disenfranchised groups have had in America.

Alveda King, the niece of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and an Atlanta-based anti-abortion activist, called the idea of extending rights to a fetus a “no-brainer.”

“Science has proven that the babies in the wombs are human beings — that makes them a class of people,” she said. “It’s not a tumor. It’s not a clump of cells. It’s a person.”

King, who runs the website, said after having two abortions and a miscarriage, she understands why women often feel their only option is to terminate a pregnancy. But, she said, a fetus deserves to be protected even if it means the mother loses some autonomy.

“There has to be a better way to protect women’s rights than killing another innocent person,” King said. “The only other class of people who were treated as poorly as babies in the womb in modern history was slaves.”

The Rev. Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, said he has trouble taking seriously the comparisons of personhood to the civil rights movement. Ebenezer was the spiritual home of Martin Luther King Jr. and holds strong ties to the fight to end segregation and Jim Crow laws in the South.

Warnock said if legislators really cared about protecting the lives of all human beings, they would pass legislation that protects their civil rights, such as expanding access to Medicaid, the public health program that provides care to the poor and disabled.

“Literally, Georgians are dying every day because we’re refusing to expand Medicaid,” Warnock said. “To make parallels between this and civil rights while continuing to put forward bills of voter suppression, of refusing to expand Medicaid, refusing to support reasonable gun reform, is deeply disingenuous.”

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