OPINION: The day the Georgia Senate banned abortion

Democratic state Sen. Jen Jordan rails against a bill that would outlaw most abortions in Georgia. Photo by Bob Andres

Democratic state Sen. Jen Jordan rails against a bill that would outlaw most abortions in Georgia. Photo by Bob Andres

Only one woman in the Georgia state Senate voted for the state’s so-called “heartbeat bill” when it passed in 2019.

That woman, Renee Unterman, is no longer in the Senate, but the bill she supported could go into effect as soon as June if the leaked Supreme Court opinion striking down Roe v. Wade proves accurate and removes women’s constitutional right to an abortion.

It’s important to understand that the law won’t just ban abortions for Georgia women after fetal cardiac activity is detected, usually at between five and six weeks of pregnancy, when most women don’t yet know they’re pregnant.

It also gives personhood, or legal rights, to those embryos “at any stage of development” when it is in a woman’s uterus.

Among an entire Pandora’s box of legal issues that the personhood issue raises, the bill specifically says that embryos in Georgia will be considered “natural persons” for the purposes of a couple’s alimony, for child support and prenatal medical expenses, state population counts, and income tax deductions.

The law included some exceptions, but even those exceptions have extra requirements for pregnant women to meet.

Women will be able to seek abortions if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, but only up to 20 weeks of pregnancy, and only if the woman reports the rape or incest to the police, who would then, presumably know the woman is considering an abortion. Would a police investigation have to prove that rape or incest occurred? That’s not clear in the law.

And while a medical emergency would be an exception allowing women to seek an abortion, a mental health emergency or condition would not.

Finally, the law opens a woman’s health records up to local district attorneys for future prosecutions.

The Senate debate that preceded this law made national headlines in 2019 when state Sen. Jen Jordan told her colleagues a deeply personal story about her 10 pregnancies that had resulted in just two healthy deliveries.

She said she grieved every one, but didn’t see how women’s personal decisions, with their families and their doctor, were any of her colleagues;’ business with the law they were drafting.

It showed “a complete lack of respect and trust in women,” she said.

But Jordan wasn’t the only woman to tell her story. Other female senators, all dressed in white, told their own.

State Sen. Gloria Butler spoke about growing up as a teenage girl in the South, never speaking of sex in her family, because anything to do with sexuality, including abortion, was shrouded in silence at the time.

She described the time a young friend of hers found out she was pregnant, and, desperate, tried to perform an abortion on herself. She and her baby both died.

Other female senators spoke for other women, some of whom sought abortions for medical reasons, emotional reasons, or any one of other motivations they alone could understand.

None of the Democratic female senators swayed their Republican colleagues that day, many of whom grounded their arguments for the new restrictions in their own personal religious beliefs.

Sen. Chuck Payne read a poem he’d written for his wife after she had a baby titled, “God smiled,” and suggested that the other senators say a prayer to God to be able to “follow Him.”

State Sen. Bruce Thompson told the story of his ex-wife who was so traumatized by an earlier abortion before they met that they eventually divorced. She believed “God was punishing her,” he explained.

Others quoted quoted Psalms, Isaiah, and Jeremiah.

Beyond the religious arguments, Republicans said abortion is simply immoral. State Sen. Matt Brass said he was pro-choice. “Every woman should have a right to choose their own doctor, to choose their own partner, to choose their own place to live,” he said.

But women shouldn’t be able to choose to have abortions, he said. “Nobody is allowed to choose to kill an innocent human being simply because they are in the way.”

Only Unterman, the Republican woman who shepherded the bill, could speak from her own experience about the potential effects of the bill itself on women, but she argued, like the other Republicans, that other women seeking abortion were wrong.

Only one speech, Democratic state Sen. Sally Harrell, touched on the white-hot politics of the abortion issue, warning the Republicans in the chamber, “Vote yes for this bill and we’re coming for your seats because that’s how democracy works.”

An AJC poll in January showed Harrell may be right. 68% of Georgia voters opposed overturning Roe v. Wade, which would clear the way for the Georgia law to go into effect, including 73% of women and 63% of men.

With more than 5 million Georgia women affected by the law, which could potentially end access to abortion for the first time in many women’s lifetimes, it’s hard to see how Republicans won’t pay a price for this at the polls in 2022.