Leaked abortion opinion could herald seismic changes in Georgia

A draft opinion that suggests the U.S. Supreme Court is ready to strike down Roe v. Wade could herald seismic political and legal changes in Georgia if the landmark 1973 decision is overturned.

The leaked opinion released by Politico on Monday could be altered dramatically before it’s published, but the draft triggered an immediate political reaction in Georgia, a battleground state where both parties have clashed over abortion rights.

Overturning Roe would pave the way for an anti-abortion measure signed by Gov. Brian Kemp in 2019 to take effect. The state’s law, blocked by a federal appeals court, would ban abortions after a doctor can detect fetal cardiac activity — typically about six weeks into a pregnancy, before many women know they are pregnant.

If the justices issue a ruling that mirrors the leaked draft, it would sharpen the political divide over abortion months before midterm elections for Georgia governor, a U.S. Senate seat that could decide control of the chamber, and congressional and legislative offices.

As some Republicans pushed for a special legislative session to enact even stiffer abortion restrictions if Roe is reversed, senior Georgia Democrats predicted such a ruling would mobilize voters, particularly women, six months ahead of the election.

Facing a tough November vote for a full six-year term, U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock referred to himself as a “pro-choice pastor” as he pledged to protect access to abortions.

“I’ll always fight to protect a woman’s right to choose,” said Warnock, the leader of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. “And that will never change.”

Democratic state Sen. Jen Jordan, who is running to become Georgia's attorney general, said a U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade would bring more attention to Georgia as “the next battleground for reproductive freedom.” Jordan, who first came to prominence as an opponent of Georgia's anti-abortion "heartbeat law," said a leaked draft of the high court's decision “targets people without power in marginalized communities, and that’s why Georgians should be concerned.” Photo by Bob Andres

icon to expand image

Other Democrats signaled that abortion could become a unifying theme for a party struggling with its response to rising inflation, higher fuel prices and gridlock in Washington under President Joe Biden.

“It reiterates how high the stakes are for everyone in these elections. And women are going to lose the right to choose in Georgia,” Democratic U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux said at a stop in Gwinnett County. “It is devastating for women’s health. It is devastating for women’s futures in Georgia if we don’t have choice.”

State Sen. Jen Jordan, whose speech opposing the state’s anti-abortion law catapulted her to national prominence, said the leaked draft will bring more attention to Georgia as “the next battleground for reproductive freedom” if it holds.

“This targets people without power in marginalized communities, and that’s why Georgians should be concerned,” said Jordan, who is running to unseat Republican Attorney General Chris Carr.

Stacey Abrams, one of the most vocal critics of Georgia’s anti-abortion law, responded to the draft by pledging to oppose new restrictions if she’s elected governor.

“We should greet this news with rage and with absolute dismay,” she said in an interview, “and we should be organizing ourselves to defend our people — to defend women and their rights to an abortion.”

What‘s less certain is whether Warnock and other Democrats rally behind a new effort to scrap the legislative filibuster in the U.S. Senate to preemptively codify the legal principles in Roe.

It would likely take bipartisan support to blow up the 60-vote threshold to pass legislation, and previous maneuvering to overhaul the filibuster to adopt a voting rights measure last year went nowhere.

‘More determined’

Many Georgia Republicans condemned the leak as an effort to undermine the conservative majority on the bench, even as they expressed hope that the draft opinion stating that “Roe was egregiously wrong from the start” would remain intact.

Kemp spokesman Cody Hall lamented the “unprecedented breach of U.S. Supreme Court protocol” that punctured the bench’s tradition of secrecy. And he highlighted Kemp’s signing of Georgia’s anti-abortion legislation, which he made a centerpiece of his first year in office despite legal challenges and threats of boycotts.

But the governor didn’t take a victory lap, reflecting caution about an opinion that’s not expected to be finalized for at least a month and could yet change in ways both minor and major.

“Georgians should rest assured I will continue to fight for the strongest pro-life law in the country,” Kemp said.

Kemp’s main rival in the GOP primary, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, had no such reticence. Perdue, who entered the race at the urging Donald Trump, touted his support while in the Senate for three justices appointed by the then-president and promised to pursue more restrictions if he’s elected.

Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who is challenging Gov. Brian Kemp in the GOP primary, responded to the release of a leaked draft of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that would overturn Roe v. Wade by saying he would pursue more restrictions on abortion. Democrat Stacey Abrams, who will face either Kemp or Perdue in November's general election, said that if she's elected, she "will defend the right to an abortion and fight for reproductive justice." Kemp took a cautious tone, noting that the decision is not final.

Credit: AJC

icon to expand image

Credit: AJC

“When I’m governor,” Perdue said, “Georgia will be the safest place in America for the unborn.”

Activists and candidates predicted the leaked draft would give supporters a new, urgent reason to vote this year, polarizing voters in a different way than debates over economic policy and access to health care.

Cole Muzio of Frontline Policy Action, a Georgia anti-abortion group, said “everything the pro-life movement has been working and praying for” would come to pass if a version of the draft opinion is issued.

“As voters head to the polls,” he added, “lives literally hang in the balance like never before.”

While conservatives see the potential ruling as a victory in a long campaign to prove life begins at conception, Democrats expect the leaked decision to energize women who oppose new limits on abortion.

Ruwa Romman, a Democratic candidate for a Gwinnett-based state House seat, said she would channel her “heartbroken and angry” emotions into electoral energy. While many voters she encounters on the campaign trail are “burned out,” she said the possibility of the high court’s ruling provides a new core message for Democratic candidates.

“This is shifting how voters perceive midterm elections moving forward,” Romman said. “We have a record number of Democrats running for races, and they’re all out there talking about this today.”

‘Open season’

The draft opinion, which is dated February, would effectively clear the way for states to restrict or ban abortions. Georgia is among the 26 states likely to ban abortion if Roe is struck down, according to the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion rights organization.

The state’s anti-abortion measure, dubbed the “heartbeat law” by Kemp and his Republican allies, was at the center of emotional debate in 2019 before the courts blocked it from taking effect. That legislation, too, inspired promises from supporters and detractors to rush to the ballot box to punish or validate politicians who backed the law.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll in January showed about 68% of Georgia voters opposed overturning Roe, which has guaranteed the right to an abortion for nearly a half-century. Asked specifically about the state’s restrictive anti-abortion law in 2019, voters were more closely split.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll in January showed about 68% of Georgia voters opposed overturning Roe v. Wade, which has guaranteed the right to an abortion for nearly a half-century.

icon to expand image

As word of the draft opinion circulated, some state GOP legislators privately discussed imposing stricter limitations on abortion if Roe is struck down — potentially in a special legislative session before the November vote.

Kemp’s allies, however, signaled this was unlikely, given that the 2019 restrictions eked through the Georgia House with one vote to spare. Still, many Republicans — including Perdue — suggested calling lawmakers back to the Capitol later this year in response to the decision.

“If I were governor when this ruling was issued, I would call the Legislature back into a special session to ban abortion in Georgia,” Perdue said.

State Sen. Bruce Thompson, who voted for Georgia’s anti-abortion law, echoed that sentiment Tuesday.

“As a strong pro-lifer, I believe all life was created by God and deserves to be protected,” said Thompson, a Republican candidate for labor commissioner who unsuccessfully sought to block the mailing of abortion pills this year.

Such a ban would be permissible if the Supreme Court issues a decision that resembles the draft opinion, said Anthony Kreis, a Georgia State University constitutional law professor.

“The opinion, if it came to pass as written,” Kreis said, “would essentially mark an open season for any and all abortions in Georgia.”

Washington correspondent Tia Mitchell contributed to this article.