Bookman: Georgia’s anti-abortion law might shift debate to political arena

People protest in May against Georgia's "heartbeat" bill at the Capitol building. The law would prohibit nearly all abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected and was set to take effect on Jan. 1 until a federal court blocked it. Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

For decades, conservative state legislatures have passed anti-abortion bills that they knew would never go into effect because under the Roe v. Wade ruling, such laws were considered a violation of a woman’s constitutional right to privacy.

Legislators and governors paid no political price for such actions because it was, in effect, a consequence-free vote, allowing them to posture for their pro-life constituents without really angering those on the other side of the debate.

Those days may be ending.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an abortion case out of Kentucky, in effect allowing a controversial bill passed in 2017 to go into effect. Under that law, a woman seeking an abortion in Kentucky will be forced to first undergo a trans-vaginal ultrasound, in which a probe is pushed into her vagina, while a doctor or technician describes the fetus to her in considerable detail.

There is no medical necessity for such a procedure. Instead, in the preamble to the bill, its authors tell us that “the purpose of this Act is to protect the unborn child from a woman’s uninformed decision to have an abortion,” as if adult women, in consultation with their doctors, are too stupid to be trusted with such a decision on their own without guidance from legislators who know more about her situation than she does.

There was a time when such a law would have been tossed out by the Supreme Court on grounds that it places an undue burden on a woman’s right to make such decisions on her own, in consultation with her doctor. No longer. The makeup of the court has changed significantly and may change even more in the next few years, suggesting that Roe itself is in significant danger of being overturned.

That’s certainly the goal of House Bill 481, the so-called “heartbeat bill” passed by the Georgia Legislature, signed into law in May by Gov. Brian Kemp and originally scheduled to go into effect on Jan. 1. The legislation outlaws all abortions beyond the six-week mark of a pregnancy, under the theory that at six weeks a fetal heartbeart can be heard, signifying the existence of a “natural person” deserving of full legal rights, including the right to be declared a dependent on your taxes. And at just six weeks, many women don’t even know they’re pregnant.

In October, a federal judge did indeed block enforcement of the bill, setting up a potential series of appeals and adding Georgia’s law to the list of state laws that the Supreme Court could take up and use to overturn Roe.

If that happens – and it’s increasingly more a question of when than if – the nature of the abortion debate changes from legal and constitutional to outright political. Female voters and female politicians should have a lot to say in that debate because they will have a lot at stake, but they may have trouble making their voices heard.

Look at the vote counts. Georgia’s six-week abortion ban narrrowly passed the state House. Of the 92 votes that were cast in favor, 79 came from men.

It then went to the Georgia Senate, where the gender imbalance was even worse. Thirty-three of the 34 votes cast in favor of the abortion ban in the Senate came from men. The sole woman to vote for it was its Senate sponsor, Renee Unterman, who is now running for the GOP nomination in the Seventh Congressional District and touting the legislation as a major accomplishment. Kemp, fresh off his victory over Stacey Abrams, then signed it into law.

If women want a voice in such decisions, they have to be in those chambers and positions of power. And if women are going to be in those positions, voters of both genders are going to have to put them there.

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.