On February 16 of last year, I was sitting on a hard wooden bench, nervous in anticipation of my first legislative hearing at the Georgia state capitol. My colleagues and I arrived early to save seats, but it wasn’t long until the room was packed with people. It wasn’t till much later, after this hearing and others were over, that I realized the room was packed mostly with advocates for reproductive health who were troubled by the bill in question at this hearing. HB 954 had been introduced the previous week, and it immediately required a coordinated legislative strategy and grassroots mobilization to defeat. HB 954, later known as the “Women as Livestock Bill” thanks to insensitive comments by State Rep. Terry England (R-Auburn), would be the first ban on legal, pre-viable abortion procedures in Georgia since the Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton Supreme Court cases of 1973. In our state, it would also be the most restrictive legislation regarding reproductive health care since the Women’s Right to Know Act was passed in Georgia in 2007.
HB 954 stung, and it stung hard. The bill’s primary sponsor and champion, Rep. Doug McKillip (R-Athens), had flipped from a pro-choice Democrat to an anti-choice Republican after the 2010 elections. It was a slap in the face by a former friend in the legislature, and we were then faced with the difficult task of defeating one of the most onerous bills to restrict abortion in Georgia’s history. Worse, it looked to be greased for passage; assigned to hostile committees in the House and Senate with adamantly anti-abortion Chairpersons, it glided through both chambers despite highly emotionally charged floor debates.
I was aghast to see that as we fought the bill, the grassroots tactics weren’t working. We packed the hearings with citizen lobbyists opposed to the bill. In one hearing before the Senate Health and Human Services committee, a reporter struggled to find a single proponent of the bill to interview among a crowd of over 100 reproductive health advocates, dressed in black and wearing “No on 954” stickers. We held a walk around the Capitol that attracted over 500 activists from across the state. We mounted a strong, steady campaign to urge advocates to speak out against the bill via letters, faxes, phone calls, and emails. But still the bill moved forward.
I am the community engagement coordinator at the Feminist Women’s Health Center (FWHC) in Atlanta, Georgia’s only independent 501(c)(3) non-profit clinic that is locally based and woman-owned and -operated. Each year during the legislative session, my colleagues and I go down to the Capitol to lobby for our rights. I train grassroots lobbyists on how to talk to their legislators and advocate for themselves with regard to reproductive rights and other salient issues. The 2012 session was fairly quiet until HB 954 was introduced—then all legislative hell broke loose.
Like many state-level activists, we fought hard to defeat anti-abortion legislation last year. We were up against formidable opponents of reproductive health and rights in Georgia: strong anti-abortion majorities in the Georgia General Assembly, the determined group Georgia Right to Life, which threatened legislators’ political careers, and anti-abortion advocates who lied and manipulated legislators’ emotions to try and get HB 954 passed. At hearings, I listened to a North Carolina-based osteopath make outrageous and false assertions regarding fetal pain, citing an 18-year old, debunked article as his main source. I watched other HB 954 proponents lie, pass around fetus models, and bounce babies with developmental disabilities on their laps while sobbing about the “rights of the unborn.” At no time did they discuss the rights of people and their families to decide to terminate a pregnancy. At no time did they address the potential financial and emotional hardships families face in a society with profound lack of support for unwanted, unintended pregnancies and those involving fetal anomalies. And at no time did the legislators acknowledge that they would punish doctors for providing care within their scope of practice.
I heard the bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. McKillip, defend the banning of abortions after an arbitrary 20 weeks of pregnancy by claiming, “You won’t be able to legislate so that everything that works out right … this is a separate life that is deserving of protection from the state, and that is the point at which that life’s deserving of protection [sic] overcomes that of the other issues being discussed.” Those “other issues” are the rights of pregnant people to access reproductive health care. As Rep. Yasmin Neal said during the first state House hearing, “I don’t think it’s fair to take this time away from women … it’s [at] a point in this discussion where women’s bodies are just shells. Empty shells.”
The potential effects of HB 954 are real and serious. HB 954 seeks to drastically sever a patient’s right to reproductive medical services. This bill is not based on science, sound medical practice, or constitutional law. The following is a brief list of what is contained in HB 954.
- It falsely claims that a fetus can feel pain at 22 weeks since the last menstrual period (LMP).
- It redefines gestational age so that the length of a pregnancy is based on the number of weeks from fertilization, not the first day of the last menstrual period (LMP).
- It criminalizes providing abortions on pre-viable fetuses.
- The only exception to the above rule is if the mother’s physical health is in danger, and even then only in the event of potential “substantial and irreversible” damage. There is no exception for mental health.
- There is no exception for rape or incest.
- The only exception for fetal anomalies, despite the fact that many tests for fetal anomalies occur around 20 weeks, is for pregnancies diagnosed as “medically futile.” Because this is a vague and non-medical term, the law will thereby force a woman to carry to term a fetus that may have serious physical injuries or deformities or which may not have the ability to sustain life. Worse, if the pregnancy meets the conditions for the exceptions, the doctor may perform an abortion as long as he or she uses a method to do so that would allow the fetus the best chance to live outside of the womb. Since the pregnancies in question would be pre-viable, the likelihood that the fetus would survive is slim to none.
There are many other potential effects of HB 954 as well. HB 954 will curb access to care for some of the most vulnerable people in our state, with the most adverse effects felt by people of color and individuals living in poverty who face many barriers to prenatal care, including access to high-risk perinatologists. (There are only six high-risk perinatologists in Georgia who practice outside of the Atlanta metro area.) SPARK Reproductive Justice NOW! has additional information about the inequities that HB 954 would perpetuate and worsen.
On March 29 of last year, I was outside the Capitol when the House passed HB 954 just before sine die. I expected to see the windows explode, hear wails of distress, or get some other sign that such a terrible piece of legislation had passed. When I went back inside, I only saw the distressed, discouraged, and occasionally crying faces of the individuals who fought so hard to defeat HB 954. As my colleague and I left the Capitol, we passed three women from Georgia Right to Life who were smirking at us, clearly happy that their pet legislation had passed. It was hard to take after a huge loss.
The next days and weeks were difficult. Hardest of all was fielding questions from supporters and angry community members who wanted to know what they could do. We encouraged them to take action by contacting Gov. Nathan Deal. His veto was our last hope for defeating the legislation. However, Deal signed the bill into law on May 1, 2012.
For the next few months we continued to field outraged calls and emails asking, “What can I do to stop this bill?” “Nothing,” I thought wearily. But I had to keep encouraging activists to fight back. I implored them to be more proactive and to support initiatives to help women access clinics in states that allow abortions after 22 weeks LMP. In the meantime, FWHC created protocols to comply with the new legislation and began notifying callers to our clinic that we couldn’t provide them abortion care after January 1 if they were 22 or more weeks LMP by that date. In that event, we would need to provide them with a referral to the very limited number of providers in other states, the closest being in New York City and Baltimore.
On December 22, we received the news that the Superior Court of Fulton County had temporarily suspended parts of HB 954 that ban pre-viability abortions. This last-minute decision filled our weary hearts with joy and gratitude, just before the bill would have gone into full effect. For now, the rights of some of the most vulnerable people in Georgia are safe. But we must remain ever-vigilant to support those fragile rights.
The fight to stop HB 954 involved a large, strong coalition of reproductive health and rights champions in Georgia. We pulled together to mount a strong, grassroots campaign and a carefully coordinated legislative strategy. The deck was stacked against us. In 2011, Georgia was able to escape the record-breaking 93 laws enacted to restrict abortion across the United States. In 2012, many Georgia lawmakers needed a piece of legislation to take home to their districts for re-election. They needed a token anti-abortion bill, and they got it—by standing on the backs of women and others in Georgia who need access and rights to reproductive health care.
Now, activists are riled up and ready to fight back hard. Last year brought too many misogynistic comments and restrictions on abortion and contraceptives. Georgians are waking up from an apathetic period to find that many state lawmakers have become increasingly conservative and hostile to social justice issues. Last year they passed a bill to restrict abortion, based on false claims, political maneuvering, and a disregard for science and the will of their constituents. This year lawmakers will not be so lucky.