Georgia’s ‘religious liberty’ opponents treat abortion bills differently

Georgia’s state Capitol

Georgia’s state Capitol

Corporate powers and business boosters voice their outrage each time a “religious liberty” measure surfaces in Georgia. But the same powerful groups have stayed silent about a sweeping anti-abortion proposal that’s generating national attention.

Georgia is considering becoming the third state this year to pass a "heartbeat bill," which would ban most abortions after about six weeks. The proposal has drawn national headlines, with even Athens-based alternative rock band R.E.M. chiming in Thursday on Twitter to oppose it.

As lawmakers prepare for a Friday vote in the state Senate, Democrats and other critics of House Bill 481 are questioning why some of the most influential lobbies in Georgia are staying on the sidelines.

It's night and day from what happened three years ago, when another high-stakes piece of social legislation moved swiftly through the Legislature. Back then, a chorus of state leaders and national heavyweights called for its demise.

The Walt Disney Co. threatened to pull its productions from Georgia, and the National Football League warned it could risk Atlanta's bid for the Super Bowl. Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus — a GOP megadonor — called it "divisive and distracting," and a bloc of Georgia-based Fortune 500 firms including Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines, SunTrust Banks and UPS opposed it.

This year, a list of medical associations and left-leaning organizations have rallied against HB 481, which would outlaw most abortions once a doctor detects a heartbeat in the womb. But the silence from some of the state's most powerful corporate powers is bewildering to its opponents.

Stacey Abrams, the state's highest-profile Democrat, has repeatedly blasted "shortsighted" business lobbies for not rallying against it. She fears it will hamper the state's economic development in the same way that religious liberty proposals triggered boycott threats.

“The issue here is we do not often tie women’s autonomy to our economics. But they’re directly linked,” she said. “And when women start saying, ‘I’m not moving to Georgia because they have this abominable bill stripping women of autonomy and their choices,’ we will see a result.”

This isn't a new stance from the state's business community, which often avoids debates about abortion, guns and other legislation. Case in point: The last major debate over abortion in Georgia in 2012 was waged without any significant intervention from powerful corporate groups.

That’s unlikely to change if the bill reaches the desk of Gov. Brian Kemp, who endorsed it.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reached out to each of the Georgia-based Fortune 500 companies that opposed a significant religious liberty measure in 2016 to poll them about the anti-abortion bill pending now. Most declined to comment or said they were staying out of the debate.

“This is such a personal matter of opinion to individuals that we don’t see it as our place to weigh in,” a Home Depot spokesman said.

The Metro Atlanta Chamber, which led the fight against the religious liberty bill in 2016, said in a statement it, too, was steering clear of the issue and that it hoped leaders “will continue to hear and respect voices on both sides of the debate.”

It was also difficult to find local experts who wanted to talk about the politics behind publicly supporting or opposing the anti-abortion measure. Many said the business community probably viewed taking a public stand as a lose-lose situation.

Kerwin Swint, a political scientist and interim dean at Kennesaw State University, said the two issues have some major differences.

“With (religious liberty), the business community saw that as a looming disaster and were motivated to get involved,” he said. “They must be looking at this issue differently.”

Jamie Hagen, a Rhode Island-based scholar with the International Studies Association, said for some reason businesses — and people — are less likely to support women’s issues than they are to fight religious freedom legislation.

“Even though it impacts us all, everyone thinks abortion only impacts women, which is a constituency people aren’t as ready to put their neck out for — I mean the (Equal Rights Amendment) still isn’t passed, right?” Hagen said. “I think abortion access is still seen as too risky politically to support.”

Under the proposal, pregnant women still would be able to get 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.

As quiet as the business community has been, several prominent medical groups have loudly opposed the measure. The Medical Association of Georgia, the most influential doctors lobby in Georgia, urged lawmakers to defeat the bill.

And so have a string of physicians groups, punctuated Thursday by a letter from nearly 300 medical school students.

“We ask you, our representatives, to listen to the voices of Georgia’s future physicians and vote against HB 481,” the letter stated.

The legislation would allow any woman who undergoes an abortion to file a civil suit against the abortion provider — for the value of the life of a child whose life began at six weeks. Doctors who perform abortions after 20 weeks without an exemption already are at risk of having their license suspended and facing one to 10 years in prison, according to state law.

Business boosters privately acknowledge the measure is unpopular with some executives, but they question whether it could derail recruitment efforts the same way the religious liberty measure did in 2016. And they point to similar measures that have passed in other states, including Iowa and Kentucky, with little or no economic backlash.

That could be because states are immediately sued over the legislation and courts block the laws from taking effect until the cases are resolved.

A judge stopped a similar law in Kentucky last week from taking effect hours after the governor signed the measure.

Some conservatives said they are more wary of political backlash targeting the dwindling number of Republicans who represent suburban Atlanta districts. In a recent interview, House Speaker David Ralston noted the growing strength of Georgia's film business, which fiercely fought religious liberty legislation but is mostly mum on abortion bills.

“There’s been a great deal of concern in the industry about the (religious liberty) issue. I really haven’t heard from the industry about the heartbeat bill,” Ralston said. “That seems to be regarded differently.”

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