State Rep. Ed Setzler, the sponsor of House Bill 481, the anti-abortion “heartbeat bill,” says some lawmakers who voted for an earlier version of the bill are now concerned about having to “campaign on this.” The measure is now drawing opposition not only from Democrats and abortion rights supporters, but also a key anti-abortion group that opposes exceptions in the bill that would allow abortions in the case of rape, incest, medical emergencies or “medical futility.” “The shrill vitriol we get from the other side is unnerving some people,” Setzler said, “but our supporters are resolute on the bill.” Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Georgia Republicans face high-stakes pressure over anti-abortion bill

Georgia Republicans are facing mounting pressure from both sides of the aisle to reject the anti-abortion “heartbeat bill” as they prepare for a final vote that could come as soon as Thursday.

Amid threats of a Hollywood boycott and fierce opposition from abortion rights activists, supporters of House Bill 481 now have a new threat to contend with: the call from a prominent conservative group to defeat the bill because it says the measure doesn’t go far enough.

If the proposal becomes law, it would be among the strictest in the nation, banning most abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy — when its supporters say doctors are able to detect a fetal heartbeat.

Supporters of the measure have little room to maneuver. The measure narrowly passed the House earlier this month, but it needs another vote in the chamber before it heads to Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk. The sponsor, state Rep. Ed Setzler, acknowledged that some fellow Republicans are starting to waver.

“There’s a lot of folks who voted yes who kind of have bellyache about it,” the Acworth Republican told Cherokee County conservatives this week, urging them to prepare for a final vote Thursday. “They don’t want to have to stand behind this and campaign on this.”

A defeat would be a blow to conservatives and Kemp, who put the weight of his administration behind the measure. It would also be a testament to the growing clout of Democrats, who have vowed to channel their anger over the measure into electoral action next year.

State Sen. Jen Jordan, an Atlanta Democrat, said “women won’t forget” if the bill passes.

“What Republicans can’t take away — no matter how hard they try — are the choices and rights women will have in the voting booth in 2020,” Jordan said.

Opponents have vowed to sue, saying that the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision guarantees a woman’s right to receive an abortion up until a fetus is viable outside the mother.

A federal judge in North Carolina on Tuesday ruled that a ban on abortions after 20 weeks — which is Georgia’s current law — is unconstitutional. The North Carolina ruling, however, would have no impact in Georgia.

A long list of medical associations and left-leaning organizations have rallied against the proposal, which would outlaw most abortions before women may even be aware they’re pregnant. But the silence from powerful industries bewildered the measure’s opponents.

That started to change last week, as a string of business executives sent a public letter opposing the measure and the Writers Guild of America released a statement warning that the new law might cause Hollywood TV and film production to go elsewhere.

“This law would make Georgia an inhospitable place for those in the film and television industry to work, including our members,” the WGA East and West said in a joint statement.

The industry was lured by generous incentives that have doled out more than $2 billion in tax credits over the past decade, generating tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in direct economic activity. Georgia is now the third-biggest state for film and TV production.

No production company so far has publicly said it would pull out of the state — as some did in 2016 when the state Legislature passed a “religious liberty” bill and Gov. Nathan Deal then vetoed it.

Those incentives are considered untouchable by even the state’s fiercest fiscal conservatives — including Kemp, who reinforced the need for the breaks at a film industry event last week. Still, local film executives live in fear that divisive social legislation could spook Hollywood.

“I’m the worrier in chief,” said Kris Bagwell, executive vice president at EUE/Screen Gems Studios, where productions including the 2018 Marvel blockbuster “Black Panther” have set up shop. “The whole production industry is a creative, inclusive community.”

State Rep. Trey Kelley, a floor leader for Kemp, said while the state has benefited from the movie industry’s spending in Georgia, its opposition to the proposal won’t dictate how he votes.

“I think it’s sad that some will try to use the movie industry to stop good legislation in Georgia,” the Cedartown Republican said. “But with any proposal I do — and I know many members of (the Republican) caucus — weigh the merits of the legislation, they don’t pay attention to what special-interest groups have to say about it.”

‘Terrified Republicans’

With just three workdays left in the legislative session, time is running short.

The measure needs at least 91 votes to pass, and it earned 93 earlier this month. Two Republicans crossed party lines to vote against it, while one Democrat backed the bill. An additional 17 lawmakers were excused from the vote or didn’t record one. Thirteen were Republicans.

A handful of additional defections or timely absences could sink the bill, and Democrats are homing in on suburban lawmakers who could be politically damaged by the vote: They could potentially face a primary opponent if they vote no or risk losing their seat in November 2020 if they vote yes.

Behind the scenes, the pressure being exerted on lawmakers is heating up, and the vote count is said to change hour by hour.

On one hand, supporters who already voted for the bill are already on the record and have little incentive to change their mind. On the other, the opposition from Georgia Right to Life, an influential conservative group, could give those having second thoughts some political cover.

The group’s director, Zemmie Fleck, said in a letter to members that it opposed the bill because of exceptions that would allow abortions in the case of rape, incest, medical emergencies or “medical futility,” meaning the fetus would not be able to survive after birth.

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

Another anti-abortion organization, Save the 1, said it would sue the state because of what it called “discriminatory exceptions” that weren’t restrictive enough. They want the legislation to become law, only without the exceptions.

The proposal’s champions are scrambling to counter the blowback. Joshua Edmonds of the anti-abortion Georgia Life Alliance — the official wing of National Right to Life — said the legislation isn’t perfect but it’s the only pending bill this year that “can save lives in the womb.” And Setzler, the measure’s sponsor, tells his allies to prepare for a drawn-out fight.

Speaking to a conservative group late Tuesday, he said there are “some terrified Republicans” unnerved by abortion rights advocates who have pledged to unseat them. In an interview, Setzler said his message to those unsettled legislators is “when you are right, lean in.”

“And make no mistake about it, we know this is right,” he said, expressing confidence it will pass. “The shrill vitriol we get from the other side is unnerving for some people, but our supporters are resolute on this bill.”

Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at ajc.com/news/georgia-government/.

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