In the heart of Georgia’s Bible Belt, ‘heartbeat’ law draws huge support

Hardie’s Drugs and Christian Bookstore in the heart of Hazlehurst serves many of Jeff Davis County’s residents pharmacy needs while also selling Bibles and other Christian gifts. Susan Steavpack, a former teacher who said she believes abortion should be illegal in all cases, traveled from McRae to pick up her prescriptions last month. Maya T. Prabhu/

Hardie’s Drugs and Christian Bookstore in the heart of Hazlehurst serves many of Jeff Davis County’s residents pharmacy needs while also selling Bibles and other Christian gifts. Susan Steavpack, a former teacher who said she believes abortion should be illegal in all cases, traveled from McRae to pick up her prescriptions last month. Maya T. Prabhu/

Several years ago, Amanda Parker had a miscarriage.

It was one of the most painful things she said she’s experienced — physically and emotionally. After losing a child that way, Parker said she doesn’t understand why anyone would want to get an abortion “just because they don’t want the baby.”

“Once that baby’s made, that’s it,” the Hazlehurst resident told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

While backlash against Georgia’s new abortion law and those that other states recently passed — has dominated headlines in metro Atlanta, the view is starkly different in other parts of the state. Outside of Georgia’s cities, talk of a Hollywood boycott is more likely to elicit an eye roll than fears of job losses, and the belief that a woman has a constitutional right to decide when and if she becomes a mother is not universally held.

>> Related: Multiple TV, film productions not coming to Georgia due to 'heartbeat' abortion bill as backlash builds

Rural parts of the state also provided the political muscle that put in place the new restrictions on abortion.

Like many of the rural Georgians who spoke recently to the AJC, Parker, a 39-year-old convenience store manager, says her Christian faith tells her that life begins at conception and therefore it is morally wrong to take the life of the unborn. Abortion, she said, should be vastly limited.

The AJC traveled across the state to get a more complete picture of how Georgians see the issue of abortion and the state's new abortion law. What was found echoes the findings of the paper's most recent poll on the subject and illustrates the sharp divide on display in Georgia politics — especially during the last legislative session.

Rural Georgians such as Packer are far more apt to say they believe abortion should be restricted or outlawed completely. And the politicians who represent them wield the lion’s share of power in the state Legislature. Without them, Gov. Brian Kemp would not have been able to keep his campaign promise to sign one of the strictest abortion laws in the country.

Georgia’s ‘heartbeat’ law

The six-week ban on abortions has been years in the making.

Since enacting a law that outlawed abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy in 2012, Georgia lawmakers had had little success in introducing legislation to put further limitations on access to the procedure until this year.

House Bill 481, signed into law May 7, outlaws most abortions once a doctor can detect a "heartbeat" — which is usually at about six weeks of pregnancy and before many women know they're pregnant. The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia has vowed to challenge the law in court.

Supporters were buoyed by Kemp’s promise on the campaign trail last year to support tough abortion laws.

Some wanted to see the law go even further.

In Georgia, later abortions still are allowed in cases of rape, incest, if the life of the woman is in danger or in instances of "medical futility," when a fetus would not be able to survive after birth. To obtain an abortion after six weeks because of rape or incest, a woman would have to file a police report.

McRea resident Susan Steavpack, a 62-year-old former teacher, was one of several rural Georgians who told the AJC that they believed abortion should be banned outright.

While support for restricting abortion is strongest outside of Georgia’s metro areas, it’s not universal.

“I feel like women have the right to do what they want with their bodies,” Dalton resident Isabel Perez said.

And Vidalia resident Scott Hutto said while he considers himself a religious man, he didn’t think his religion should impact the lives of others.

“Here they believe something and they try to make you believe like they do,” the 37-year-old grocery store employee said. “They try to make you live the way they believe you should.”

Power in rural Georgia

Heading into Jeff Davis County along U.S. 221, drivers pass several signs with messages such as “You can trust. Jesus saves. You better believe it.” Hazlehurst Church of Christ’s sign welcomed visitors at the city’s limits in late April with a message that “A righteous mother can change the world.”

A little further along U.S. 221 the biblically named Manna Cafe and Eatery plays gospel music while it serves coffee and burgers. Piggly Wiggly employees say gospel is played on Sundays at the grocery store in Hazlehurst’s downtown.

And City Hall sits across South Cromartie Street from Southside Baptist Church to the right and Hazlehurst Church of God to the left.

“This is definitely the Bible Belt,” Hutto said. “Church and religion are a huge part of life here.”

It ‘s a foundation in faith that informs the beliefs around abortion for many in the state’s rural areas. Murray County GOP Chairman Jacob Ledford said religion is the basis for why he and most other Republicans in North Georgia believe life begins at conception.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find people who were not supporters of the bill,” he said of North Georgians. “It’s our way of life. We live a slower life here, and our values and our principles are different.”

That divide in opinions on abortion was reflected in an April poll by the AJC. While slightly more than 55% of the respondents living in North Georgia and South Georgia told the AJC they supported HB 481, nearly 63% of those living in metro Atlanta said they opposed it.

State Rep. Dominic LaRiccia, a Douglas Republican, said his constituents expect him to fight for abortion restrictions.

“Not all rural districts are the same,” he said. “But in my district, in particular, one of the first questions you would be asked is if you are pro-life.”

LaRiccia made national news last month when he confronted actress and producer Alyssa Milano as she delivered a letter urging Kemp to not sign HB 481 into law.

“I’m in a unique part of Georgia,” he said. “They are overwhelmingly pro-life here. I have several friends that are Democrats that are maybe more fiscally liberal on some issues, but even socially they are supportive of protecting the life of the unborn.”

Rural Georgians lifted Kemp to victory last year, voting for him by margins so large they erased deficits in urban and suburban areas. For example, voters in Jeff Davis and Murray counties backed him at rates of 83% and 86%, respectively.

And rural state representatives are the reason HB 481 passed the House at all. The lone Democrat to support the measure, state Rep. Mack Jackson of Sandersville, is a pastor from rural Georgia. Three of the five Republican House members who voted against the legislation are from metro Atlanta.

The measure needed 91 votes in the House to meet the constitutional requirement for passage. It received 92.

Rural Georgia is also the home of much of the Legislature’s Republican leadership.

House Speaker David Ralston of Blue RidgeHouse Majority Leader Jon Burns of Newington and Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan of Carrollton help shape the debate on the issues facing the Legislature.

The House and Senate budget committee chairmen — state Rep. Terry England of Auburn and state Sen. Jack Hill of Reidsville — spearhead the discussion on how the state spends its money. The chairmen of the powerful Rules Committee in each chamber, state Sen. Jeff Mullis of Chickamauga and state Rep. Jay Powell of Camilla, head the panels that decide which legislation makes it to the floor for a vote.

Women’s health care

Rural Georgia may hold the bulk of the political power, but the abortion debate shines a light on serious issues that plague the state in terms of reproductive health care that HB 481’s opponents say deserve more attention.

Maternal mortality is chief among those concerns. The Georgia Department of Public Health put the state rate in 2016 at 37.2 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, surpassing that of some Third World nations.

Limited access to reproductive health care is another issue, one that’s particularly troubling outside the state’s population centers. Some pregnant women in rural Georgia have to travel dozens of miles to see an obstetrician.

A woman in Hazlehurst, the seat of Jeff Davis County, would choose between 11 obstetrician/gynecologists within an eight-county radius, according to 2017 statistics from the Georgia Board for Physician Workforce — the most recent data available. There were no ob/gyns in Jeff Davis County in 2017.

Those 11 ob/gyns are responsible for the care of nearly 150,000 South Georgia residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2017 estimates, and cover more than 3,000 square miles. Metro Atlanta, by comparison, had 682 ob/gyns to serve 4.2 million residents across eight counties and about 2,500 square miles.

The argument for better overall reproductive health care didn’t change many minds. Lawmakers who supported HB 481 said the goal of protecting the unborn outweighed all else.

Anne Moore, a retired probation officer who lives in Cordele, said she had to travel to Atlanta for in vitro fertilization when she was in her 20s and trying to have children.

Moore, 56, said going through IVF and seeing the progression of her three embryos solidified her belief that life begins at conception.

Even now, she said, she travels “a good 45 minutes” to her gynecologist in Albany. In 2017, there were three ob/gyns in Crisp County, where Moore lives.

Moore said she was fortunate then, and now, to have enough money and reliable transportation to see her doctor.

“I haven’t really thought about that part — about trying to get to (an ob/gyn) that wasn’t in your own town,” Moore said. “But I’m sure it would be difficult if you didn’t have one nearby.”

Moore said she believed there was a need for more doctors of all kinds across the state, but protecting the unborn was just as important.

“It’s a really hard thing to answer,” she said.

LaRiccia, the lawmaker from Douglas, said he doesn’t think the availability of women’s health care is a factor in the abortion debate. He said the six-week ban wouldn’t necessarily lead to more pregnancies and births.

“Pregnancy is one of the realities that is 100 percent preventable,” he said. “The choice of the reproductive health of women is theirs completely — don’t get pregnant.”

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