‘Heartbeat’ law makes abortion a top issue for Georgia in 2020

Supporters of state Sen. Renee Unterman’s bid for Congress stand in front of volunteers from Planned Parenthood who attended the state legislator’s campaign launch to protest her part in passage of Georgia’s new anti-abortion “heartbeat” law. (Christina Matacotta/christina.matacotta@ajc.com)

Supporters of state Sen. Renee Unterman’s bid for Congress stand in front of volunteers from Planned Parenthood who attended the state legislator’s campaign launch to protest her part in passage of Georgia’s new anti-abortion “heartbeat” law. (Christina Matacotta/christina.matacotta@ajc.com)

As she announced her bid for Congress last week, state Sen. Renee Unterman made only two passing references to her desire to promote "a culture that honors life."

But it was lost on no one in the crowd, including the Buford Republican herself, that abortion would be a dominant theme in the hotly contested suburban Atlanta race.

“The issue is a nationwide issue … and I anticipate that I will be a part of that debate,” Unterman told reporters following the event. “I look forward to it because I’m very much pro-life.”

Unterman's entry into the 7th Congressional District contest is shifting its focus squarely onto the anti-abortion "heartbeat" measure that's divided Georgia politics.

The nine-term lawmaker was the state Senate sponsor of the law, which will restrict abortions once a doctor can detect fetal cardiac activity — which could be as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. Some Hollywood powers have threatened to pull investments from Georgia because of the legislation, and Democrats have vowed political payback.

"Renee Unterman is a direct threat to women — to our health and to our fundamental right to control our own bodies," said Carolyn Bourdeuax, a Democrat who came within 500 votes of winning the 7th District seat in 2018 and is now mounting another challenge.

The race in the 7th District, covering parts of Forsyth and Gwinnett counties, isn't the only Georgia contest where abortion is expected to overtake the conversation. In the neighboring 6th Congressional District, incumbent Democrat Lucy McBath recently resurfaced an old attack ad against two-time opponent Karen Handel that highlighted the Republican's vote to ban most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

And in legislative districts across the state, Democratic groups are mobilizing to unseat Republicans who backed the “heartbeat” law.

“People are fed up and ready to take action,” said Laura Register, a Democratic activist in rural Georgia. “Republicans are playing politics with women’s lives.”

Galvanizing effect

The focus on abortion represents a sea change from even a year ago, when the issue was considered a litmus test for political candidates but was rarely the focus of campaigns.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement announcement in June 2018 changed that. Kennedy was considered the body’s swing vote on abortion, and with his exit conservative groups saw an opening to challenge Roe v. Wade.

Nine state legislatures, including Georgia’s, passed bills curtailing access to the procedure, with the goal of landing a case at the Supreme Court that could topple the landmark 1973 decision that enshrined abortion access.

Virginia and New York added to the debate by moving to expand late-term abortion access, which prompted a rebuke from President Donald Trump in his State of the Union address.

The state-level actions have had a galvanizing effect on both sides of the abortion debate.

Each side has framed the other as extreme and floated polling showing the public is on its side. And candidates privately say the national headlines generated from the “heartbeat” law and Hollywood boycott threats have aided their fundraising efforts and overall visibility ahead of a noisy presidential election year.

Read more: AJC poll: Strong support for Roe; opinion closer on ‘heartbeat bill’ 

Anti-abortion groups have rolled out aggressive new campaigns labeling their opponents as baby killers by highlighting the recent legislative pushes in Democrat-controlled states.

“I think the candidates that are pro-life are going to be very confident in pointing out the extremism of the other side: abortion for any reason at any time in the pregnancy. When you look at states like Virginia you even think infanticide,” said former U.S. Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, the vice president of government affairs at Susan B. Anthony List, a nonprofit that supports anti-abortion candidates and has endorsed Handel.

Democrats have also ramped up their rhetoric. They’ve seized on Alabama’s restrictive new law that would prohibit nearly all abortions.

"We reduce the value of women when we take away their right to self-determination," said Nabilah Islam, another Democrat running in the 7th District.

The issue speaks directly to the group both sides acknowledge will be key to winning the 6th and 7th districts in 2020. Suburban women have generally leaned to the right in northern Atlanta, but they punished the GOP for sticking with Trump last year, voting out Handel and more than a dozen state legislators.

With those voters in mind, Democratic candidates have adjusted their messaging to jump into the debate.

Bourdeaux focused her campaign against U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall last year on safeguarding health care protections for people with pre-existing conditions. She was planning to do the same this year but acknowledged that abortion has become an overriding theme on the campaign trail.

“It has really changed the focus of this race,” Bourdeaux said. “Health care is still very, very important and central, but now it’s quite clear that this race is likely to be a referendum on choice, with national implications.”

It's a similar story in the 6th, where McBath has also begun discussing abortion access after focusing her campaign last year on gun control and health care. She recently fundraised off an old ad centered on Handel's 2017 vote in favor of a bill that would have barred most abortions after five months of pregnancy and imposed fines or jail time on providers.

Abortion is not a new issue for Handel, who in 2012 engineered the Susan G. Komen Foundation's move to end its partnerships with Planned Parenthood. The move was short-lived, but her book about the episode, "Planned Bullyhood," made her a conservative darling.

She's focused on other issues since announcing her comeback bid for Congress, but she's previously pushed for boosting federal funding for community health centers rather than Planned Parenthood, which performs abortions.

Statehouse fights

The issue is already having a major impact in a slew of down-ballot races in Georgia.

Gov. Brian Kemp and other Republicans who won their races in November by appealing to the conservative base cast themselves as promise-keepers. And anti-abortion groups have launched initiatives to help vulnerable Republicans fortify their seats.

Democrats sense they’ll have a bigger opening, though, given the number of competitive seats up for grabs next year. There are 15 state House seats where Republicans won with less than 55 percent of the vote in 2018. Democrats need to flip 16 to take control of the chamber.

The Georgia House Majority Project, launched last week, will zero in on the most vulnerable GOP incumbents by peppering their districts with digital ads, direct mail and voter outreach starting later this year.

It’s one of several efforts that abortion rights supporters are waging to make Republicans pay for narrowly approving the “heartbeat” law, which will face a certain legal challenge that’s likely to trigger a years-long court battle before it can take effect in January.

The fast-changing suburbs are the prime target. Zac McCrary, a Democratic strategist and Bourdeaux consultant, said Republicans are “committing self-immolation in the Atlanta metro area” and the anti-abortion restrictions will only hasten their defeat.

Kemp and other Republicans won statewide, though, because they wracked up huge margins of victory in deeply conservative parts of the state where new abortion restrictions are a top priority. Abortion foes such as the Georgia Life Alliance are planning to go on the offensive over the next 17 months, embarking on a speaking tour that will include stops in left-leaning portions of rural Middle and South Georgia.

“We want to make sure that folks recognize that they don’t have to be locked into a more extreme view on abortion than they ascribe to, and help them feel empowered to vote their values and vote for pro-life candidates in 2020,” Executive Director Joshua Edmonds said.

Back in the 7th District, Unterman has vowed to campaign on a set of issues far broader than abortion and the “heartbeat” law.

Her advisers say she'll likely emphasize her more bipartisan initiatives, such as new crackdowns on sex trafficking, requirements that insurance companies cover autism treatment for young children and efforts to target opioid abuse.

At her kickoff rally, she positioned a kitchen table on stage to hit home her focus on everyday issues that matter to families.

But she later conceded abortion would be the big issue as reporters peppered her with questions about her role in the “heartbeat” debate.

“I laid a lot of skin on the ground on that one,” Unterman said.