Georgia\’s HB 481 struck down, but the fight to protect legalized abortion continues

A call for Georgia Cities to stand up for reproductive justice

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Photography: Richard Martin

The past month has brought two important wins for abortion rights in Georgia. On July 13, the Georgia District Court struck down HB 481, Georgia’s six-week ban on abortions. On June 29, the Supreme Court issued its decision in June Medical Services v. Russo, striking down Louisiana\’s admitting privileges law. This decision correctly followed the precedent of Whole Woman’s Health, where the court found a nearly identical law in Texas unconstitutional. 

In the 2016 Whole Woman’s Health decision, the Supreme Court determined that requiring abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a local hospital and forcing unnecessary, if not impossible, targeted regulations on clinics was unconstitutional, because of the undue burden they placed on people seeking care. These medically unjustified requirements had already forced over half of Texas abortion clinics to close and, if allowed to continue, would close even more, creating steep obstacles for people seeking abortion care — such as traveling up to 500 miles to the nearest clinic.

Additionally, in the June Medical Services decision, following decades of precedent, the Supreme Court allowed the third-party standing to remain in place, which permits providers and clinics to litigate cases on behalf of their patients. Since the vast majority of cases are brought by clinics and providers, to rule otherwise would have made it incredibly hard to bring future cases against abortion restrictions

It may be surprising to some that June Medical Services even made it to the Supreme Court. If the decision in Roe stands, then why do states feel emboldened to pass laws restricting, and even banning, abortion access? 

This is because the right to abortion care — and the ability to access care — has never been absolute, starting with Roe which stipulated that states can regulate abortion care for “safeguarding health, maintaining medical standards, and in protecting potential life” (Roe, 410 U.S. at 154). Roe made abortions early in pregnancy legal, but left the door open for restrictions that make access to abortion care increasingly difficult, if not obsolete. Various decisions since Roe have expanded states’ rights to overregulate access, including Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which put forth “undue burden” to accessing abortion care as the new standard for assessing abortion restrictions, an assessment largely left to the discretion of judges and lawyers. We have seen a marked increase in burdensome, costly and medically unnecessary regulations of abortion care across the U.S. In 2019 alone, states enacted 58 new abortion restrictions, over half of which would completely ban all, most or some abortions. There are now 18 different types of abortion restrictions across the U.S., the majority of which are in effect in Southern states. This is because of a wide-scale, coordinated effort by conservative state legislatures to reverse Roe, a battle they are waging with ever-increasing ferocity. 

The truth of the matter is that although the Supreme Court’s decisions garner news coverage, the battle over abortion access is largely fought at the state level, and Georgia is no different. For us, this Supreme Court victory means sustaining the status quo, with patients in Georgia paying on average $500 out of pocket because public insurance does not cover abortion care, traveling long distances to the nearest clinic and out of state if the abortion is after 20 weeks since conception, waiting 24 hours between consent and the procedure, having your parents notified of your procedure, if you are under 18 years old, and overcoming countless other hurdles. Even if we succeeded in preventing all future abortion restrictions, unless we address these existing barriers to care, this will continue to be our reality.

Make no mistake: these medically unjustified restrictions are designed to make abortion harder to access, especially for Black people and other people of color, the LGBTQ community, poor folks, youth, and those who live in rural areas. The same racist systems perpetuating police brutality and white supremacy are also behind these restrictions, working together to oppress and control Black and other marginalized communities. 

And Georgia’s lawmakers are doubling down on these racist policies. Just last year, Gov. Brian Kemp signed the now-stricken HB 481 into law, which would have banned abortion after six-weeks and bestowed “personhood” status on a fetus. In doing so, Georgia joined eight other states passing gestational age bans on abortion in 2019. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), CRRs, and Planned Parenthood filed a legal challenge against HB481, on behalf of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective and various healthcare providers, and over a year later, Georgia District Court finally struck down HB 481. Gov. Kemp, having already spent an estimated $300,000 on litigation, has vowed to appeal this decision and continue the fight, despite being in the middle of a pandemic with large budget shortfalls, and in a state with one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the nation, a burden disproportionately borne by the Black community. 

If individual states can continue to pass such harmful laws, what does that mean for abortion access in Republican-led states like Georgia? It means we must demand change from the ground up; we must go local.

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As COVID-19 has shown, city leaders have an important role to play in keeping their citizens safe and healthy. This includes ensuring they have access to holistic reproductive healthcare, including abortion care; especially in the face of a hostile, anti-abortion state legislature and governor.

So, what can cities do to improve access to abortion care and reproductive healthcare more broadly? Cities can expand access to abortion clinics by examining zoning laws to ensure clinics can open new locations near other medical facilities, conduct public awareness and education campaigns around comprehensive reproductive healthcare, protect clinics and clinic employees and patients from harassment and violence, create a fund that low income folks can access to cover the cost of reproductive healthcare, protect individuals from discrimination based on their reproductive health decisions, and so much more. All of these tools are within the tool box of municipal-level government and can directly combat harmful policies at the state level.

This is especially important in metro Atlanta, which is home to 11 out of the 15 abortion clinics in the state and a hub for healthcare in the South. 

After HB481 was signed into effect, the Atlanta City Council issued a resolution condemning the new law. This public stance in support of abortion access created an opportunity for the AMPLIFY Georgia campaign, a partnership of local reproductive justice organizations, to approach the city council to back its stance against HB 481 with action. 

From these conversations came about the creation of a first-of-its-kind commission. In Nov. 2019, the City Council passed a resolution establishing a Reproductive Justice Commission, which will consist of local experts, activists, and community members whose role is to advise the city council on how to advance reproductive health, rights, and justice in their city. 

Due to COVID-19, appointments to this committee have stalled, but the need for this work has only grown. As city officials are taking a hard look at how they can better address the many competing health and safety needs of their citizens, the commission can provide expert, real-time advice to city leaders around how their policies could potentially help or harm reproductive health in Atlanta. 

In addition to addressing the inequities in accessing abortion care, this commission would advise on a broad range of reproductive justice issues, including gender-based violence, menstruation, contraception, birth, and child care. If we want to meet these needs, city leaders must rethink whose voices and perspectives are heard and prioritized. The Reproductive Justice Commission is one tool for doing this.

We are living in a time when folks are taking to the streets to demand change, demanding local leaders move money out of policing and into Black and Brown communities. This shift allows for a reimagining of reproductive justice and abortion access in our cities, too.

It is time for cities across Georgia to take action to better meet the reproductive health needs of their citizens, during COVID-19 and beyond. As we celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision and the striking down of HB481, let’s remember that the fight for abortion access is far from over. We need strong leadership from cities to build on these wins by establishing a new status quo in Georgia, where all residents, not just the lucky few — can access safe, dignified, and affordable reproductive health services, including abortion care.

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