Georgia Right to Life, the state’s most aggressive anti-abortion organization, has settled on a single, unlikely villain.
He is House Speaker David Ralston, a bona fide Republican and arguably the second most powerful man in the state Capitol.
Ralston and GRTL have clashed before, and there are those who might question the wisdom of reigniting the feud. This time, the pro-life group has condemned the House speaker for blocking an attempt – made in the final days of last month’s legislative session – to eliminate coverage for abortions from state employee insurance policies.
Ralston said the issue deserved at least one committee hearing.
But GRTL has a larger reason for targeting the House speaker. “Nothing we do is based on revenge or spite, regardless of what it may seem. It’s calculated. It’s right out of a playbook called confrontational politics, by the gun owners and right-to-work people,” GRTL President Dan Becker said this week.
While some in the GOP want a more nuanced approach on abortion that accommodates the party’s need for independent female voters, Becker will have none of it. His reason is at once obscure and important.
Last year, the Legislature passed – with Speaker Ralston’s support – House Bill 954, a measure that reduced the period during which a woman can seek an abortion to 20 weeks.
When the Georgia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union challenged the new law in court, its lawyers didn’t go to a federal judge. The ACLU filed its lawsuit in Fulton County Superior Court, arguing that the law violated guarantees of privacy and equal protection contained in Georgia’s state Constitution.
“When it comes to individual rights, states are often more protective than the federal constitution, which is why you see this state constitutional litigation happening all over,” said Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project – and co-counsel in the legal challenge to H.B. 954.
“It’s a great strategy,” Becker concedes. “It’s masterful how they’ve gone ahead and worked that over the last decade.”
Whatever the lower-court result, the legal challenge to H.B. 954 is sure to proceed to the Georgia Supreme Court. “If they rule under the right to privacy, the 20-week ban would be thrown out, and then all the other pro-life laws can be picked off one-by-one,” Becker said.
In other words, the never-ending fight over abortion has shifted from an all-or-nothing confrontation before the U.S. Supreme Court to a state-by-state slog.
The most active portion of the pro-life movement – Becker’s portion – insists that “personhood” amendments to state constitutions are the answer. Such amendments would award legal status to embryos from the moment of conception – and stifle the ACLU’s state constitutional strategy.
A 2011 attempt at a personhood amendment in Mississippi – perhaps the most conservative state in the Union – failed by a surprisingly large margin of nearly 60 percent.
Becker, who now doubles as the national field director, said lessons have been learned. He just finished eight weeks in North Dakota, where that state’s legislature has placed a personhood amendment on the November 2014 ballot.
These state-level pushes have not been polite tea parties. Becker had moved on to Iowa this week, where he was a featured speaker at a rally. Afterwards, state lawmakers were invited to sign the “Planned Parenthood Won’t Snap My Spine Resolution.”
It was a reference to the gruesome murder trial of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, a Philadelphia abortion provider charged with killing four babies allegedly born alive.
But Becker said you’re not likely to see that kind of fight here. Not yet. “There’s no hope of a personhood amendment in Georgia,” Becker said. “Until we engage in political action.”
Which brings us back to the House speaker. Putting a constitutional amendment on a Georgia ballot would require a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate. Republicans have a super-majority in the Senate, but are a seat shy in the House.
It would require an atmosphere in which no Republican defections would be tolerated. Becker and his allies clearly don’t think Ralston is the man to help them generate that climate.
“Détente has fallen through, and we’re back to the bad ol’ days,” Becker said.
And so the feud has been given new life. In the meantime, Becker said his group will wait for Georgia judges to rule on the ACLU lawsuit, with recalls in mind. “That will become part of our strategy, to remove the activist judges,” he said.