Bookman: Determined minority dictated ‘heartbeat’ law to majority

October 3, 2019 8:03 am

Georgia and three other states argue in a  U.S. Supreme Court brief that the justices should uphold Louisiana’s strict anti-abortion law. Last year at the Georgia Capitol, people protested the anti-abortion “heartbeat” bill, which is now blocked by a federal judge. Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

Not surprisingly, a federal judge this week temporarily suspended a new Georgia law that proclaims that an embryo “at any stage of development” is a “natural person” with all the rights and protections of a human being.

That law, House Bill 481, would also outlaw most abortions more than six weeks into a pregnancy. For my fellow men out there, that’s two weeks after a missed menstrual period.

As U.S. District Court Judge Steve Jones noted in his ruling, that law clearly violates longstanding Supreme Court rulings that place such difficult decisions in the hands of a pregnant woman herself, rather than government. “Under no circumstances whatsoever may a state prohibit or ban abortions at any point prior to viability, no matter what interests the state asserts to support it,” Jones concluded.

State officials have not announced an appeal of Jones’ decision, but it’s a near certainty. The law was drafted and enacted specifically to draw a legal challenge and then be overturned, so state officials could then appeal it all the way up to an increasingly conservative U.S. Supreme Court. Republican legislators in other states have passed similar laws, all of them designed to provoke a challenge to Roe v. Wade.

After the ruling, Joshua Edmonds of the anti-abortion Georgia Life Alliance attacked it as “yet another demonstration of judicial activism against an overwhelming majority of Georgians who support protecting innocent life.” But the truth is, that alleged “overwhelming majority” does not exist.

In a statewide poll conducted by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in April, 58% of Georgians said that abortion should be legal in all or most situations, compared to 38% who think it should be illegal in all or most cases.

The numbers were even more stark in politically crucial subgroups.

Among women, for example, 63% told pollsters that they want abortion to stay legal; just 34% believe it should be illegal in most cases. That’s almost a 2-to-1 ratio in favor of abortion rights among those who would be most directly affected should they disappear.

Among Georgians under 45, almost 65% want abortion to continue to be legal. In the rapidly growing Atlanta metro area, more than 70% support keeping abortion as a legal option. Among independents, who often serve as swing voters, 72% want abortion to stay legal.

Given all that, it’s fair to wonder how HB 481 became law in the first place. The answer is pretty simple: A determined, well-organized, highly motivated minority can often dictate policy to an apathetic, disorganized majority. That’s what traditionally happens on abortion issues, and it’s also what happens on gun-safety issues. Repeated polls tell us that 90% of Americans want to require universal background checks before a gun purchase, but so far little to no progress has been made toward that effort.

Why? Because stopping that legislation is more important to that 10% loyal to the NRA than enacting it is to the 90%. That’s frustrating, but it is not, as some describe it, a failure of democracy. It is a failure of that 90%.

It’s also important to note the extremism that animates HB 481. The real goal is not merely to limit abortion to the first six weeks of pregnancy. The goal is to ban it altogether, and given the language and internal logic of HB 481, that eventual goal includes in cases of rape or incest. After all, if an embryo is a human being from the moment of conception, then the circumstances of that conception do not matter.

For decades now, groups such as Planned Parenthood and the ACLU have been fighting on behalf of an apathetic majority that hasn’t quite grasped the seriousness of the challenge to abortion rights posed by the minority. That apathy has been made possible largely by court rulings that have defended choice as part of our inherent right to privacy, but conservative efforts to remake the judicial system pose an increasingly serious threat.

And in the end, the courts are not the most important guarantor of our rights. We are.

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Jay Bookman
Jay Bookman

Jay Bookman covered Georgia and national politics for nearly 30 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, earning numerous national, regional and state journalism awards. He has been awarded the National Headliner Award and the Walker Stone Award for outstanding editorial writing, and is the only two-time winner of the Pulliam Fellowship granted by the Society of Professional Journalists. He is also the author of "Caught in the Current," published by St. Martin's Press.