It was a roller-coaster fight for pro-life activists at the Georgia State Capitol this week.
At its start on Monday, many Republicans in the Georgia legislature seemed ready to play politics with the lives of the unborn. After Speaker David Ralston blocked S.B. 438 (which would have stopped state employee health care plans from paying for abortion) from getting voted out of committee, the Senate amended H.B. 954 (the “fetal pain” bill), effectively gutting that legislation. Both the Georgia Senate and the House of Representatives are controlled by a majority of Republicans.
All the way until the last day of the 40-day session, it appeared that a stalemate between the Senate and the House would prevent any anti-abortion legislation from getting passed into law. But within the last few hours of the session, lawmakers negotiated a compromise. To some it looked like the Republicans took two steps backward and one step forward from the version of the bill approved by Georgia Right to Life (GRTL).
As originally written by its sponsor, State Representative Doug McKillip (R-Athens), the proposal would have reduced the time women in Georgia may have an abortion by about six weeks. The Senate’s changes forced into the bill an exemption for “medically futile” pregnancies, giving doctors the option to perform an abortion past 20 weeks when a fetus has congenital or chromosomal defects.
Although the House — including Rep. McKillip and House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) — initially balked, on the last day of the session they agreed to move forward with a compromise. Included in the compromise was a definition in the bill describing what “medically futile” means: profound and “irremediable” anomalies that would be “incompatible with sustaining life after birth.”
Other smaller tweaks to the bill’s language were made, and Rep. McKillip agreed to keep another Senate change that would fail to hold doctors accountable in civil suits brought as a result of the legislation.
In essence the loophole remained in the bill but was tightened — women seeking abortions after 20 weeks can still get them under certain circumstances. But Rep. McKillip and the bill’s supporters still declared victory. “We agreed with that to make sure we have an enforceable statute,” Rep. McKillip said.
The AJC reported on the day:
The emotional nature of the debate spilled over into the lobby, as the head of Georgia Right to Life and a representative of a doctor’s organization almost came to blows outside the Senate.
GRTL president Dan Becker and John Walraven, executive director of the Perinatal Infertility Coalition of Georgia, had a heated verbal exchange that became physical Thursday. A state trooper standing nearby spoke to both men and to witnesses, but no charges were filed. The police presence at the state capitol was increased substantially until a small fleet of police vehicles lined both sides of the curb on Mitchell Street.
“We commend the Legislature,” Becker said later, despite not fully endorsing the compromise. “This is one of the toughest pro-life laws in the nation. We will not comment on support, not support, endorse, not endorse. It will save roughly 1,500 lives a year.”
Meanwhile, Senate Democratic put up their routine fuss. They had already stormed out when Senator Crane’s pro-life health care bill passed. They repeated this gesture for the fetal pain bill as it passed their chamber. Sporting yellow police tape, they marched into the hallways and, joined with other H.B. 954 opponents, and shouted, “We will remember!”
“The GOP war on women is alive and well in Georgia,” said Senator Nan Orrock (D-Atlanta). Within the hour, the bill passed the House on a 106-59 vote.
Six states – Nebraska, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Alabama – have similar “fetal pain” restrictions. A seventh, North Carolina, restricts abortion at 20 weeks.