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What Overturning Roe v. Wade Would Mean for Black Georgians

The state’s ‘fetal heartbeat bill’ has been held up in court. A Supreme Court ruling on Roe v. Wade could put it back into play.

Demonstrators participate in the March for Reproductive Justice in Atlanta on Oct. 2, 2021, in this file photo. Abortion-rights activists in Georgia warn of dire consequences should the U.S. Supreme Court strike down Roe v. Wade after a leaked draft opinion from the high court was published May 2. (Ben Gray/AP)

The road to an abortion ban would be cleared for the GOP-controlled Georgia assembly if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, state lawmakers say — creating hurdles that would severely affect Black Georgians who are already among the most isolated from quality maternal health care.

A leaked draft opinion from the Supreme Court suggests the high court could overturn Roe v. Wade this summer and allow states to institute bans or severe restrictions on abortions. The news comes three years after Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed the “fetal heartbeat bill” into law. The measure would ban abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected, which typically happens after six weeks of pregnancy. 

A federal appellate court blocked that measure in 2020, but a Supreme Court ruling could ease its path.

“They’ve been moving this idea along,” said Democratic state Rep. James Beverly of Macon. “I think it means Georgia would effectively ban abortions for everyone.”

Chief Justice John Roberts on Tuesday confirmed the authenticity of the leaked majority opinion, which was written by Justice Samuel Alito, but he emphasized that the draft isn’t final. The court’s ruling on the case, which is related to Mississippi’s strict abortion law, is expected to come this summer.

Georgia’s heartbeat bill is in limbo in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which won’t rule on the case until the Supreme Court makes its official ruling on Roe v. Wade, said Sean J. Young, legal director of the ACLU of Georgia. But, if the court does issue a ruling overturning abortion rights, conservative Georgia lawmakers could strengthen the already stringent six-week abortion ban.

Read More: The Fight Over Abortion Rights Is a Black Issue

Thomecia Busby, a doula who also supports people during abortions, said any decision banning abortion would disproportionately affect Black Georgians. 

“If a lot of us don’t have the resources to take care of ourselves, how are we supposed to take care of a child?” Busby said in a voice memo to Capital B Atlanta. “A lot of people aren’t understanding that Black people are dying at alarming rates from maternal mortality.”

On Tuesday evening in downtown Atlanta, a crowd rallied at the corner of Centennial Olympic Drive and Marietta Street to protest the leaked Supreme Court opinion. Organizers of the rally, led by the Atlanta chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, passed out signs and buttons that read, “I stand with Planned Parenthood.”

Mothers held their kids on their shoulders as men, dressed in bulletproof vests and masks, created a protective perimeter around the scores of demonstrators. Some protesters cried as others shouted, “We won’t go back,” while passing cars honked their horns for the cause. 

Protester Kaija Burton said she fears the Supreme Court ruling would open the door for Georgia to go “back to the 1950s.”

“In Georgia specifically, we’re going to see a lot of unsafe abortions,” Burton said. “Half of Black people already don’t trust the health care system because we are dying in the system.”

Deatricia Rollins, an organizer with the Party for Socialism and Liberation, echoed Burton’s fear, stating that the Supreme Court’s potential move is a direct attack on Black women and women of color.

“The health care system is already terrible, and who is it terrible for?” Rollins said. “Poor and working-class women are the ones who will be negatively and disproportionately affected immediately.”

But Rollins says she will continue to fight for abortion access, no matter the high court’s decision.  

“We will do this with or without them,” Rollins said. “As a Black woman, it is my right to choose if I have a child or when I have a child. No one else.”

Currently, pregnant people in Georgia can get abortions up until 22 weeks, but access is limited for many people across the state, with a majority of abortion care clinics concentrated in Atlanta and nearly half of the state’s counties not having access to obstetrician and gynecological care

Most of the places where there is no care are in rural areas of the state. In Georgia, 95% of counties have no known abortion clinic, and more than half of the women in the state live in counties without a clinic. With reports of Planned Parenthood ceasing abortion services because of lack of staffing, it puts more strain on independent clinics that provide abortion and that are already facing financial pressure because of the looming ban. 

“Not only Atlanta, but the Southeast … historically, there have been ongoing disparities in access to quality health care, into sexual and reproductive health information in our communities,” said Oriaku Njoku, co-founder and executive director of Access Reproductive Care-Southeast, an abortion fund. “It’s keeping the next generation of our folks from getting a better future.” 

A total abortion ban also has the potential to financially cripple independent women’s health clinics, like the Feminist Women’s Health Center in Atlanta. The executive director of the center, Kwajelyn Jackson, said most of the clients who seek care at the center are Black, as are a majority of the providers. 

Without the center, it would mean potentially losing access to birth control, wellness exams, and more. 

“It will be a significant blow if we are to lose the ability to provide abortion care at the levels that we are currently providing it,” Jackson said in an interview, adding that there are no intentions to close doors at the center. “But that does not mean that we will be unable to continue to offer the other comprehensive reproductive health care that we do right now and continue to grow those services in the future.” 

Abortion advocates also worry that without legal abortion, there will be more searches for dangerous, underground abortions.

“If they do ban the abortions … and people have to start going to random cities and states to get these illegal abortions, who knows what’s going to happen with their bodies?” said Busby, the doula who cares for abortion patients. 

Lawmakers react

Georgia lawmakers have been seeking to limit abortion in various ways for years. In the last General Assembly session, Republican lawmakers attempted to block President Joe Biden’s decision to allow telehealth abortion, which would have allowed pregnant people to access an abortion pill by mail. 

The state Senate passed the measure on March 1. State lawmakers said the House version of the bill hasn’t been voted on yet.

Overturning Roe v. Wade could have a significant impact on the upcoming midterm elections, driving Democrats to the polls to elect gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who would likely veto any attempts to restrict abortion access further than the 22-week ban. 

Abrams shared her disdain for the Supreme Court’s unofficial ruling on Roe via Twitter on Tuesday.

“As a woman, I am enraged by the continued assault on our right to control our bodies + our futures,” she tweeted. “As an American, I am appalled by the SCOTUS breach & its implications. As the next Governor of Georgia, I will defend the right to an abortion and fight for reproductive justice.”

Several of Georgia’s Black Democratic lawmakers also expressed anger and outrage over the potential overturn of Roe v. Wade.

“They don’t want you to tell them to put on a mask to protect everybody, but they want to tell you what to do with your body,” said state Rep. Debra Bazemore of South Fulton, referring to conservatives who oppose COVID mask mandates while supporting abortion bans.

The state’s Black elected leaders said the Supreme Court news should be a wake-up call for midterm election voters.

“While this is a draft and votes can change and abortion is not illegal yet, this seems inevitable,” state House Rep. Kim Schofield of Atlanta told Capital B via email. “We need to take action and speak up and vote.”

Minority Whip David Wilkerson of Powder Springs said the Supreme Court news wasn’t surprising, given the restrictions on abortion rights that GOP-led legislatures have passed in states across the country in recent years.

“It’s disappointing, and it just means there’s a lot more work to be done at the state level to try counteracting what’s happening at the Supreme Court,” he said.

Wilkerson said voters who are concerned about the potential end of Roe v. Wade should focus on making Abrams the state’s next governor.

State lawmakers said there are no immediate plans for either Democrats or Republicans to act in response to the news before the Supreme Court’s decision is finalized. The last day of Georgia’s 2022 legislative session was April 4. The General Assembly isn’t scheduled to reconvene again before January.

“We’re out of session now, so we’re all back in our own districts,” said Republican state Sen. Bo Hatchett of Cornelia. “I’m sure we will talk about it.”

Democratic state Sen. Sonya Halpern of Atlanta said Kemp could call for a special legislative session “at any time” to pass a law banning abortion if the Supreme Court ultimately overturns Roe v. Wade, but it could backfire.

She pointed out anti-Trump women voters played a major role in the record turnout that helped Democrats retake the U.S. House during the 2018 midterm election.

“Poll after poll shows that most Americans don’t think we should be messing around with Roe v. Wade,” Halpern said. “For Democrats, it could be something that energizes us as well.”

In a national survey of Black adults commissioned by the National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda, a collective of eight reproductive justice organizations, a majority of Black people agreed that people should be able to access abortion

State Rep. Park Cannon, whose district includes Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward, said it was imperative for people to understand the draft opinion points to Planned Parenthood v. Casey, a 1992 case that reaffirmed Roe but established the standard of determining whether a state abortion regulation imposes an “undue burden” on the individual seeking the procedure before the fetus attains viability. Cannon also sits on the board of Sister Song, one of the organizations challenging Kemp’s heartbeat bill in court. 

“What Casey says, ultimately, is that states decide, so it is up to us to elect pro-choice people, regardless of which party they’re in,” Cannon said in an interview. “In all seats. I’m talking school board seats, county commission seats, because high schoolers are dealing with abortion, college people are dealing with abortion.”

At the federal level, U.S. Senate Democrats are already working to expedite a vote on the Women’s Health Protection Act, a measure that would codify the privacy protections included in the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision.

During a Tuesday afternoon press conference, U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., called on his fellow senators to immediately bring the Women’s Health Protection Act, which he co-sponsored, to a vote on the Senate floor.

“This is a devastating day for women and their families,” Warnock said regarding the Supreme Court draft opinion. “With urgency, we need to get this across the finish line.”

Passing the Women’s Health Protection Act would likely require all Democrats to vote in favor of the measure, including centrist Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

Warnock declined to say whether he supports overturning the Senate’s filibuster rule to pass the Women’s Health Protection Act.

“I can only speak for myself,” he said. “I believe in a woman’s right to choose. … Every senator needs to be heard on this question, and I think you’ll see that happen in short order.”