The Georgia Legislature avoided a potentially difficult fight over abortion Thursday in the waning hours of the legislative session. Instead, Gov. Nathan Deal may take action on his own — without needing approval from anyone else under the Gold Dome.
With state lawmakers now home for the year, Deal said his office is weighing whether he can use his executive powers to ban state employee insurance policies from covering abortion.
Doing so could raise a host of legal issues in a state that already has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the nation. It is also likely to infuriate women’s advocates. But not doing so has risks, too, such as alienating social conservatives who have long fought for the changes.
The push to make it illegal for state-sponsored insurance plans to pay for abortions emerged earlier this week, when the Republican-led Senate voted along party lines to write the ban into an unrelated insurance bill.
The move took many by surprise. Even Deal, whose aides regularly stake out the Gold Dome to keep an eye on legislation, said he was taken aback by the move — though he also said he supported it.
House lawmakers, however, refused to follow suit, saying they were unable to vet the idea as thoroughly as legislation they passed last year that essentially banned elective abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Hours later, though, Deal stepped in with a hint of a compromise.
“That is an issue that I think probably needed more time and discussion to make the members familiar with the situation,” Deal said. “And I think it’s something that over the recess period we can look at in terms of what our state health benefit plan provides and whether or not there are other ways short of legislation that this subject can be addressed.”
Mike Griffin of Georgia Right to Life, the anti-abortion group behind the legislation, said he met with Deal’s aides about the prospect of going through the Department of Community Health to ban the practice. He also acknowledged Deal may not have the authority to do so.
“We’re willing to trust the governor on this one,” said Griffin, the organization’s field director. “It’s morally the right thing to do, and it’s also the politically right thing to do.”
Women’s advocates, however, said anything Deal does will be met with a fight.
“Planned Parenthood Southeast urges Gov. Nathan Deal to focus on the economy, job creation and preventive health initiatives instead of measures that would eliminate health insurance benefits for women making very private, complex medical decisions,” said Nikema Williams, the Atlanta-based organization’s vice president for public policy.
“Ultimately, decisions about whether to end a pregnancy or raise a child must be left to a woman, her family and her faith, with the counsel of her doctor,” Williams said.
The changes would ban abortion coverage for the roughly 650,000 people covered by the State Health Benefit Plan, likely including exceptions if the life of the mother is in danger. The number covered includes workers, retirees and dependents.
The issue wasn’t vetted by lawmakers this year, but a similar proposal was introduced during last year’s session. State officials later released data showing that a declining number of women covered by the state plan were receiving abortions.
The figures showed 545 patients under the state plan sought abortions in fiscal year 2009, a figure that dropped to 447 in 2010 and 366 in 2011. Net insurance payments for the procedure fell from about $343,000 to $213,000 in that span.
Any move Deal makes toward limiting abortion coverage could set up a legal challenge. Page Pate, an Atlanta defense attorney and legal analyst, said it could raise constitutional questions about the checks and balances that limit the governor’s powers.
“I think it’s treading on thin ice. It’s something that hasn’t been done before, and I can’t think of a parallel,” said Pate. “Whether or not he can do something remains to be seen. But if you start encroaching on something this sensitive, you’re likely going to have a legal challenge.”
Supporters, however, already have an answer for that: Wait until lawmakers come back next year.
“I am thankful for Gov. Deal’s promise to — by executive order — stop state taxpayer funding of abortions,” said Sen. Judson Hill, R-Marietta, who helped lead the Senate’s effort this year to get the ban.
“If an executive order is not allowed for this prohibition, I understand the governor is likely to support changing the law next session,” Hill said. “The limited time remaining in the session (this year) made the measure difficult to pass both houses.”