Opponents of Georgia anti-abortion ‘heartbeat’ bill set sights on 2020

A man walks past abortion rights advocates protesting against House Bill 481, the “heartbeat bill” that would outlaw most abortions in Georgia. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

A man walks past abortion rights advocates protesting against House Bill 481, the “heartbeat bill” that would outlaw most abortions in Georgia. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

The final vote on tough new abortion restrictions had barely been tallied when Democrats rushed from the House chambers armed with a vow to channel their outrage into political activity.

One after another, abortion rights supporters promised to make Republicans pay for narrowly approving House Bill 481, which would outlaw most abortions in Georgia as soon as a doctor detects a "heartbeat."

They will aim some of their outrage at Gov. Brian Kemp, who is expected to sign the measure perhaps as soon as mid-April. But they’re also focusing on another group of politicians: suburban Republicans in the Legislature — whether they voted for the bill or not.

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Shortly after the measure passed, the Democratic Party of Georgia launched an initiative to target nearly 30 incumbent Republicans across the state. The list includes many supporters of the “heartbeat bill,” but also several lawmakers who opposed it.

And left-leaning activists promised to redouble efforts to recruit credible challengers for 15 seats, mostly in Atlanta's suburbs, where Republicans won by less than 55 percent. That includes the Acworth-based district of state Rep. Ed Setzler, the GOP sponsor of the bill.

"That little group up there," Atlanta Democratic state Rep. Kim Schofield said, "their days are numbered."

Kemp and other Republicans who won their races in November by appealing to the conservative base cast themselves as promise-keepers.

If it becomes law, HB 481 would outlaw most abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy — before many women realize they are pregnant — when a “heartbeat’ is detected. The sound is a source of dispute. Setzler and supporters of the bill say it should be used to establish when life begins. Doctors who oppose the legislation, however, say what sounds like a heartbeat at six weeks signals the practice motions of developing tissues that could not on their own power a fetus without the mother.

Under the proposal, 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.

The bill would also allow parents, once a heartbeat is detected, to claim an embryo on their taxes as dependents and count a fetus toward the state’s population.

Setzler said the takeaway is that Republicans "stand together on solid commonsense policy." And House Speaker David Ralston questioned the outrage.

"Is anybody shocked that we're a conservative state?" he asked the morning of the vote.

‘A watershed’ moment?

Democrats sense an opportunity to turn the tables on nearly two decades of Republican rule. The party flipped about a dozen seats in the Georgia Legislature in November, mostly in Atlanta's northern suburbs, and plan to leverage the abortion vote to pursue more.

Melita Easters of Georgia WIN List, an advocacy group that supports Democratic women who favor abortion rights, said the organization received a flurry of contributions shortly after the House vote, as well as a surge of interest in upcoming boot camp training programs for candidates.

Her group sent an email blast to its supporters just after the vote Friday. The headline: “HB 481 Passed. Who’s Ready to Flip Seats in 2020?”

“Women are energized and ready to channel their anger toward running and winning,” said Easters, whose group helped elect 44 women who now serve in the General Assembly. “This is a watershed moment for women in Georgia.”

The group said a private donor has agreed to match up to $10,000 in donations raised by April 20.

Even though the bill is already on the governor’s desk, protesters aren’t backing off.

Activists are planning a "funeral" at the Capitol on Tuesday — the last day of the session — to mourn "the death of 122 House and Senate seats that voted yes on HB 481," said Chrisoula Baikos, a Democratic political strategist.

Some conservatives are preparing to take fire from both sides.

State Rep. Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, was one of five Republicans to vote against the measure — a distinction that could enrage conservatives in his district and won't protect him from Democratic opposition. He's on the list of targeted seats Democrats released shortly after the vote.

Martin pointed to a history of votes for abortion restrictions to illustrate his stance. But he said he voted against the measure Friday because he was concerned it would “criminalize the practice of medicine.”

“I’m pro-life and I’m going to go home with my head up pro-life,” he said. “This bill gives me concerns (because) even proponents say it’s more likely than not to be unconstitutional and may not ever be enforced. That gives me pause to the pro-life cause.”

And some conservative advocates say they plan to circle their wagons around Republicans who supported the legislation.

Cole Muzio, a lobbyist with the conservative Family Policy Alliance of Georgia, said the threats of Democrats booting incumbent Republicans “will be proven false.”

“The pro-life, pro-family community will do what it always has done,” Muzio said. “Our voters will come out in droves to stand with the brave men and women who stood for the most vulnerable among us.”

Though Kemp is assured to sign the measure — he gave it his unequivocal endorsement — critics aren't letting up the pressure on him, either.

A public records request revealed hundreds of emails sent to his office urging him to reject the bill, many from opponents. And Democratic lawmakers are soliciting veto petitions online that they say they will hand-deliver to Kemp's office Tuesday.

Some critics raised the possibility of more pointed action, with state Rep. Erica Thomas saying she would park outside Kemp's office.

"Because you do not need to sign this bill," the Austell Democrat said, addressing Kemp. "Because you did this in your first year because you know you are done. You sign this bill, you know you are done."


The debate over the anti-abortion legislation in the Georgia Legislature is divisive, and these types of controversial stories receive special treatment. We always try to present as much information as possible so that readers can use those facts to reach their own conclusions.

To do that, we rely on a variety of sources that represent multiple points of view.

Today’s story, for example, includes comments from state Rep. Ed Setzler, the bill’s sponsor, and other supporters, as well as responses from Democrats fighting the legislation.

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