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State legislators preparing for session shaped by new abortion law

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State legislators preparing for session shaped by new abortion law

Audrey Watson and Zoe Mueller protest the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade outside the Georgia State Capitol on Friday, June 24, 2022. Photo by Dean Hesse.

By Ross Williams, Georgia Recorder
August 9, 2022

When Georgia lawmakers return to the Capitol in January, it will be their first time convening since the end of Roe v. Wade and the implementation of Georgia’s six-week abortion ban and fetal personhood law.

Women in both parties at the Statehouse say it is still too soon to pinpoint specific legislative proposals that will be pursued in the wake of the ruling, but conversations about the needs exposed by the decision are happening quietly right now.

Democratic members of the women’s legislative caucus met in Atlanta Saturday to hear from medical experts, academics and others about how the law is affecting Georgians and discuss possible legislative action ahead of the lawmaking season.

The summit was closed to the press, but caucus co-chairs Sen. Sally Harrell, an Atlanta Democrat, and Rep. Kimberly Alexander, a Hiram Democrat, said a major focus was on the potential economic impact of restricting abortion in a state with a limited social safety net and poor rankings in maternal and child mortality and child poverty.

“Children are expensive, and the ability to plan your families and plan those expenses allows people to move out of poverty,” Harrell said in an interview following the meeting. “So one of the things we’ve studied today is that when you force people to carry pregnancies to term, that’s expensive. You’re forcing these families, if they keep the child, you’re continuing the cycle of poverty. And Georgia already has a very weak safety net of family supportive policies, and so we’re going to add these children to what’s already a weak network, and that is very scary to me.”

The legislators heard from experts on topics including medical privacy and maternal mental health.

Shontel Cargill, president of the Georgia chapter of PostPartum Support International and a speaker at the meeting, said maternal mental health was not specifically mentioned in this year’s mental health overhaul, and limiting access to abortion could exacerbate pregnancy-related mental health challenges, especially among minority women.

“Black women in particular are 2.3 times more likely to die during childbirth than white non-Hispanic women, twice as likely to experience perinatal mental health challenges such as postpartum depression and anxiety, and are least likely to seek treatment due to long standing health inequities and racial disparities in the state of Georgia,” she said. “So it’s important that we create policies to address these maternal health crises with elevating maternal mental health concerns. That’s imperative, and hopefully, we can be collaborative in creating public health policies that bridge the gap between maternal health and mental health.”

Women make up about one-third of the 180-member Georgia state House, including 46 Democrats and 17 Republicans. In the 56-member Senate, there are 17 women, and all but two of them are Democrats.

The women’s legislative caucus is designed to be bipartisan, but none of the Republican women came to the Saturday summit, Alexander said.

“It is a bipartisan caucus, so we would have loved to have had Republican women here,” Alexander said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re Democrat, Republican, Black, white, it doesn’t matter. It’s affecting everyone.”

But while Democrats dominate the women’s caucus, they still make up the minority in both chambers.  The partisan split is 103-76 in the House and 34-22 in the Senate. That balance is not likely to tip this year, thanks in part to state election maps drawn by Republicans, but Democrats are holding out hope for statewide races.

Harrell and Alexander both said they hope Stacey Abrams will defeat Gov. Brian Kemp which would give her the authority to institute long-desired progressive policies, although they did not outline specific legislative proposals that Democrats would pursue if politically empowered.

“I’m optimistic and expecting great things in November, so that means that we’re going to have a great session in 2023,” Harrell said. “We really won’t know about legislation until it gets close to the end of the year, but the outcome of the gubernatorial election will affect huge things like whether we have Medicaid expansion or not.”

Recent polls show Kemp with a slight lead, but the race remains a tossup.

Republican lawmakers point to a new law expanding Medicaid coverage for new moms from six months to a year as a recent legislative win for Georgia women. That bill’s author, Marietta Republican Rep. Sharon Cooper, a nurse by profession and chair of the House Health and Human Services Committee, said it is too early to outline specific legislation, but GOP lawmakers are due to begin planning for the new session very soon.

“The entire Georgia Republican caucus will be meeting this weekend, and we will begin to map out and discuss our legislative agenda for 2023,” Cooper said Monday. “And as chairman of Health and Human Services, I am always looking at issues that affect the health of all Georgians, and that includes women, men and children.”

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: [email protected]. Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.