Georgia lawmakers pass abortion bill on last, emotional day

Two of the most contentious issues of this year's General Assembly passed on the last day of this year's session, salvaged by Republican leaders who wanted to tout them as major victories this election year.

New restrictions on late-term abortions in Georgia, which had appeared dead in the morning, and a bill that would cut unemployment benefits for Georgians, passed with just minutes remaining in the 2012 session.

The work to get them passed highlighted a more-than-14-hour day, one full of compromises that dominated much of lawmakers' work.

The day's most intense dealmaking was on abortion, the passage of which sparked protests in both the House and Senate. Commonly referred to as a "fetal pain" bill, House Bill 954 was all but gutted Monday after a bipartisan coalition in the state Senate forced key changes.

As originally written by its sponsor, state Rep. Doug McKillip, R-Athens, the proposal would have cut by about six weeks the time women in Georgia may have an elective abortion. The Senate's changes forced into the bill an exemption for "medically futile" pregnancies, giving doctors the option to perform an abortion past 20 weeks when a fetus has congenital or chromosomal defects.

Although the House -- including McKillip and House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge -- initially balked, they agreed Thursday to move forward with a compromise. It was to include a definition in the bill describing what "medically futile" means: Profound and "irremediable" anomalies that would be "incompatible with sustaining life after birth."

Other small tweaks to the bill's language were made. And McKillip agreed to keep another Senate change that would protect doctors from civil suits brought as a result of the legislation.

In essence the loophole remained in the bill but was tightened -- women seeking abortions after 20 weeks can still get them under certain circumstances. But McKillip and the bill's supporters still declared victory. "We agreed with that to make sure we have an enforceable statute," McKillip said.

McKillip was one of the busiest representatives on the floor during the last night of the 40-workday session, approaching the rostrum of Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, multiple times for face-to-face conversations before McKillip would stride out and appear within a few minutes in the Senate, where he would repeat the procedure with abortion supporters there.

The emotional nature of the debate spilled over into the lobby, as the head of Georgia Right to Life and a representative of a doctor’s organization almost came to blows outside the Senate.

GRTL president Dan Becker and John Walraven, executive director of the Perinatal Infertility Coalition of Georgia, had a heated verbal exchange that became physical Thursday. A state trooper standing nearby spoke to both men and to witnesses but no charges were filed.

"We commend the Legislature," Becker said later, despite not fully endorsing the compromise. "This is one of the toughest pro life laws in the nation. We will not comment on support, not support, endorse, not endorse. It will save roughly 1,500 lives a year."

But the emotion spilled over to the other side, too. Senate Democratic women for the second time this session walked out after HB 954 passed their chamber. Sporting yellow police tape, they marched into the hallways and, joined with other HB 954 opponents, shouted "we will remember!" loud enough to be heard through closed doors. "The GOP war on women is alive and well in Georgia," said Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta. Within the hour, the bill passed the House on a 106-59 vote. Democrats turned their backs on McKillip in protest.

Commonly referred to as a "fetal pain" bill, House Bill 954 would tighten medical exemptions for terminating pregnancies and require any abortion performed after 20 weeks of pregnancy be done in a way to bring the fetus out alive. No exemption is made for rape or incest. The measure says that a fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks, therefore the state has an interest in protecting it.

Supporters of the new Georgia bill said it would save lives and protect more fetuses.

Opponents said the bill would legislate decisions that should be made by doctors and would put doctors at risk who work with difficult pregnancies. Doctors who are involved in abortions after 20 weeks that do not meet the bill's restrictions could be charged with a felony and face up to 10 years in prison.

Six states — Nebraska, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Alabama — have similar "fetal pain" restrictions; a seventh, North Carolina, restricts abortion at 20 weeks.

Although not as emotional, a similarly controversial debate has been had about proposed cuts to unemployment benefits.

House Bill 347 was proposed because Georgia needs to repay more than $700 million it borrowed from the federal government to pay unemployment benefits during the Great Recession. Supporters of the bill say they are trying to do that without putting too much pressure on businesses still trying to recover.

Opponents of the legislation said the state created the problem by giving unemployment insurance cuts to businesses. Now, they said, the state is trying to make up for its mistake by taking money from the unemployed. However, the bill's sponsor, Sen. Fran Millar, said he tried to balance cuts to benefits with the need for businesses to share at least some of the burden.

HB 347, as a compromise, would not delay distributing the first unemployment check by a week as was originally proposed. However, unemployment payments would drop from 26 weeks to a sliding scale of 14 to 20 weeks. It also would increase the amount taxed for unemployment insurance.

Georgia's unemployment rate stands at about 9.1 percent, above the 8.3 percent U.S. jobless rate. The funding for unemployment insurance benefits comes from taxes paid by employers. Those already receiving benefits would be grandfathered in, but anyone making new claims would be affected.

In other action, House and Senate conferees tried to sneak into a licensing privacy bill a provision allowing the Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission to seal the records of some cases against politicians. House Bill 875 also mandates that the commission wait at least 30 days before making public when politicians are late or fail to file campaign reports. The Senate passed the bill but it failed in the House on a 24-143 vote.

Across the Gold Dome, there were a couple of minor anti-union slapdowns, though unions carry little clout in Georgia. One section of House bill 492 forbids governments from requiring contracts for public projects to require union stipulations or agreements, even though Rep. Bill Hembree, R-Winston, the bill’s sponsor could not produce a single case of that ever happening.

Senate Bill 469, which began as a bill to prevent union-connected picketing in front of the homes of executives involved in union disputes, had the picketing provisions stripped out of it the last night over fears of writing unconstitutional laws. Legislators left in provisions that would put more burdens on most unions by requiring them to get approval each year before a union can begin subtracting dues from paychecks. A vote had not been taken by deadline.

Staff writers Aaron Gould Sheinin, Laura Diamond, Jeremy Redmon and James Salzer contributed to this article.