Long before the frequently forgotten Georgia companion case, Doe v Bolton, was argued before the Supreme Court on the same day as Roe v Wade, Georgia had a progressive history for policies which allowed women access to a full range of reproductive medical services.
In fact, decades ago, Georgia women had greater access to reproductive services and abortion procedures than today. And, for several years, Georgia women had greater access to those services than women in many states, including the northeast.
Republicans gained a trifecta of political control in Georgia in 2004 which paved the way for Georgia’s restrictions on access to and autonomy over medical decisions around reproductive issues for women. Republicans have passed laws mandating tighter restrictions on access to abortion and numerous more draconian measures have been proposed during the past two decades.
During the 2022 legislative session, Georgia women mobilized to oppose a Senate bill which established restrictions on the prescription of the mifepristone and misoprostol protocol now used for the majority of medical abortions nationwide. Despite Federal regulations currently allowing such prescriptions by mail following a telemedicine appointment, Georgia Republican legislators proposed both a doctor’s visit and an ultra-sound before such a prescription could be written. Further, the proposed bill prohibited prescribing the drugs on college campuses of mailing the medication. The bill had passed in the Senate and had been approved by both a House Committee and the Rules Committee. It was on the House calendar for the 40th day of the legislative session but was never called for a vote.
As early as 1962, Emory University School of Medicine obstetricians opened a birth control clinic at Grady Memorial Hospital offering birth control pills and intrauterine devices to women too poor to see a private doctor for those alternatives. At the time, public health clinics promoted abstinence and the use of contraceptive foams, according to articles written in 2016 by history professor Ellen Rafshoon.
Planned Parenthood Established in 1964
Another progressive milestone for Georgia came in 1964 when Esther Kahn Taylor, a progressive Jewish philanthropist, established the first Planned Parenthood outpost in the Southeast in Atlanta. At the time, Fulton County had one of the highest rates of infant mortality in the nation in part because so many women who needed family planning services could not afford them. The high-powered board Mrs. Taylor established was operating eight clinics in Atlanta and one in Roswell within a decade and served up to 7,000 patients a year, according to Rafshoon’s research.
In 1968, abortion laws in Georgia and North Carolina were more liberal than those in New York or Massachusetts and it was easier to get an abortion in parts of the South than anywhere in New England, according to a 2017 article by history professor Daniel K. Williams. In 1968, Georgia law allowed for a pregnancy termination in cases of rape and incest, threats to a woman’s health, or suspected fetal deformity. Such procedures were available only for residents of Georgia and required the written approval of three physicians and a special committee. At the time, such laws were passed with bi-partisan support and were viewed more as a “doctor’s cause” than a women’s rights issue, according to Williams
Georgia’s Doe v Bolton a Roe v Wade Companion Case
The Doe v Bolton (Arthur K. Bolton was Georgia’s Attorney General) case began when an unemployed young mother was denied an abortion at Grady Memorial Hospital in 1969. The case was filed by the late Margie Pitts Hames. At the time, legal appeals for such cases took so long the cases needed plaintiffs in addition to the woman who had been denied an abortion procedure. Once a pregnancy came to full term, case appeals were moot if only that woman were a plaintiff.
Mary Long, a nurse at Grady Hospital who would years later become a founding board member for Georgia WIN List and in 2005 became the group’s second board Chair, agreed to become an additional plaintiff. As a nurse, Ms. Long had observed first-hand the emotional and physical trauma suffered by women who had experienced botched abortions.
“I’ve seen the results of women who had bad abortion procedures,” Mary recalled of her experiences as an emergency room nurse in an interview for Georgia State University’s women’s history project. “They would come in lifeless … almost near death.” These women did not have the access to safe and legal abortion young women would come to take for granted in later years. The only option for many in those days was a back-alley provider or an attempt at self-induced abortions which often resulted in hysterectomies or major infections.
On January 22, 1973, the same 7-2 SCOTUS majority which struck down Texas laws in the Roe v Wade case, also ruled on the Doe v Bolton case and invalidated most of the remaining restrictions in the Georgia law, including the medical approval and residency requirements. Together, the two cases declared abortion as a constitutional right and overturned most laws against abortion in other states, legalizing abortion nationwide for approximately the first six months of pregnancy until the point of fetal viability.
Speaker Murphy Protects Abortion Access
As the “right to life” movement gained momentum in Georgia and across the nation, many attempts were made to “chip away” at the new national law with more strict regulations at the state level. Georgia women found an unlikely ally for almost three decades in a powerful cigar chomping country lawyer from Bremen.
Legendary Georgia House Speaker Tom Murphy served from 1974 to 2002, wielding more power under Georgia’s Gold Dome than many of the governors he served alongside. His 2007 obituary noted, while “Mr. Speaker” had opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, he “kept a lid on attempts to prohibit abortion” during his tenure as the longest serving House Speaker in the nation at the time. No Republican-led attempt to reduce access to abortion for Georgia women succeeded during his tenure despite several attempts by ‘right-to-life” forces.
Speaker Murphy lost his re-election bid in 2002 at the same time Democratic Governor Roy Barnes lost his re-election bid making Republican Sonny Perdue the first Republican Georgia Governor since reconstruction. Within hours of his election, Perdue, who had served in the Senate as a Democratic President Pro-Tem before he switched parties, persuaded several Democrats to switch parties and give Republicans a Senate majority. In 2004, Republicans gained a House majority, again aided by party switchers.
With the Republican rise to power, pro-life forces found friends in the Georgia General Assembly and began to see hope for their efforts to limit abortion access. Activists from both sides staged marches and held rallies over the years, with pro-choice activities often staged on the anniversary of the Roe v Wade decision.
Over the years, Georgians for Choice, a coalition of about 35 organizations, led the lobbying efforts out in the hall between the late 1980’s to 1992. The group included the usual suspects like Planned Parenthood, The Feminist Women’s Health Center and private abortion providers, but also included the Sierra Club and other environmental groups who had a “population control” agenda. The group was extremely sophisticated in the inner workings of how the legislative process worked because each group sent a lobbyist to weekly meetings held in the back room of a restaurant at the Sloppy Floyd office tower.
One participant recalled, “It was often raucous since the sense of outrage when a bad bill came along was hard to contain.”
Georgia’s 20-week Abortion Ban Passes in 2012
Georgia became the seventh state in the nation to pass a 20-week abortion ban in 2012. After many debates and votes during the session, the bill passed during a 14-hour final legislative day despite fierce objections from women legislators. The women staged a walk-out and draped themselves in yellow police tape while chanting, “We will remember in November.”
The 20-week abortion ban tightened medical exemptions for terminated pregnancies and provided exceptions only for the life of the mother and fetal abnormalities “incompatible with sustaining life after birth.” Doctors successfully lobbied for protection from civil suits as a result of the legislation.
“The GOP war on women is alive and well in Georgia,” Senator Nan Orrock said at the time. As the bill passed in the House with a 106-59 vote, Democratic legislators turned their backs on the bill sponsor (a former Democrat who had switched to the Republican party) in protest. He was defeated in the next election by a pro-choice Republican woman.
HB 481 Creates a Six Week Abortion Ban in 2019
During the 2018 gubernatorial campaign, Brian Kemp made a promise to pass the “nation’s strictest abortion law.” The legislation came in the form of HB 481 which essentially outlawed abortion in Georgia after six weeks, a time when many women do not even realize they are pregnant. While the Georgia bill allowed exceptions for rape and incest, police reports were required to meet the exception requirement.
Advocacy efforts for and against the bill drew activists to the Capitol for weeks for sign waving, rallies and press conferences. Differing House and Senate versions of the bill required conference committee deliberations up to the waning hours of the session and debates in committee meetings and on the floor of the House and Senate were intense.
WIN List endorsed women legislators made many heart-felt speeches to oppose the bill. Perhaps the most gut-wrenching speech was delivered by Senator Jen Jordan as she shared the loss she felt after multiple miscarriages.
“No matter my faith, my beliefs, my losses, I have never, ever strayed from the basic principle that each woman – each woman – must be able to make her own decisions in consultation with her God and her family. It is not for the government or the men of this chamber to insert itself into the most personal private and wrenching decisions that women make every single day,” Senator Jordan said during a speech which was shared virally on an international basis.
One quote from the speech even made it onto widely sold t-shirts: “The women of this state will reclaim their rights after they have claimed your seats.” While Senator Sally Harrell’s speech to oppose the bill did not receive as many viral views as Senator Jordan’s, it also produced a t-shirt worthy quote, “Vote Yes for this bill and we’re coming for your seats. That’s how democracy works.”
The Georgia House vote of 92-78 in favor of HB 481 was the closest vote in any of the six states which approved more restrictive abortion laws during 2019. Read more about these close margins and why electing more women matters in an earlier blog post.
Georgia’s HB 481 was initially overturned by Federal court order after lawsuits brought by several advocacy organizations. Appeals of the lower court ruling are on hold awaiting the SCOTUS ruling on a case arising from Mississippi.
On May 2, 2022, the “leak” of a draft 98-page SCOTUS brief which would overturn the long-standing Roe v Wadeprecedent makes it clear women can no longer count on Federal court protection for reproductive rights. , The long term strategy for access to all forms of reproductive health care will shift to the states where electing Women in Numbers sufficient to protect reproductive freedom in state legislatures.
Georgia WIN List was founded with the lens of reproductive freedom as the determining factor in our candidate recruitment and endorsement process. We continue our training, recruitment, and endorsement efforts with the protection of reproductive freedom as a primary goal.
Polls tell us 68 percent of the population oposes the overturn of Roe v Wade and supports access to a full range of reproductive services for women. In November, Georgia voters will exercise the ultimate authority over those legislators up for re-election.