Abortion ban block has advocates cheering, lawmakers wary

ATLANTA — While a federal court block of Georgia’s "heartbeat" bill is described as a win for abortion advocacy groups, lawmakers see it as one play in a long game.

A federal judge issued an injunction, halting the state’s heartbeat bill — that would make abortion illegal once a doctor can detect a fetus’ heartbeat — meaning the law will not go into effect on Jan. 1.

The American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood and other reproductive rights groups filed a lawsuit in June on behalf of Georgia’s abortion providers.

“This case has always been about one thing: letting her decide,” Sean J. Young, legal director of ACLU of Georgia, said in a statement. “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but every woman is entitled to her own decision.”

U.S. District Judge Steve Jones deemed the law “unconstitutional” and blocked it from going into effect while the court case is pending.

“Under no circumstances whatsoever may a state prohibit or ban abortions at any point prior to viability, no matter what interests the state asserts to support it,” Jones wrote.

But while advocacy groups celebrate, Georgia lawmakers — both for and against the bill — are wary of the impact the block will have on the eventual outcome.

Lead sponsor on the bill, Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, told CNHI that this is just a preliminary hearing, “no more, no less.”

“This is the opening kickoff,” Setzler said. “The ACLU of Georgia is high-fiving that they didn’t fumble the ball in their own end zone.”

House of Representatives Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said that he was pleased that the bill was passed, and while people are exercising their right to question the constitutionality of a bill, it's now a waiting game.

"The federal court has decided to block implementation for now. So, ultimately we are where we were always at," Ralston told CNHI, "which is waiting for the Supreme Court to choose which case it wants to review, issue a ruling on this issue and tell the states what they can or can’t do."

House of Representatives Minority Leader Robert Trammell, D-Luthersville, agreed the fight has only begun.

“The court followed well-established, settled constitutional law in enjoining this unconstitutional ban,” he said in a statement to CNHI. “Make no mistake however; the rights of women in Georgia will not be safe until a new governing majority is elected.“

But reproductive rights providers aren’t unaware of the long road ahead.

“While delaying the predicted enactment of Jan. 1, 2020, an uphill battle remains,” SisterLove, a plaintiff group in the lawsuit, tweeted. “In spite of this, we want to ensure folks that abortion is still legal in Georgia. SisterLove stands by its belief and commitment to the reproductive justice & freedom of all women & people of reproductive capacity.”

Kwajelyn Jackson, executive director of the Feminist Women’s Health Center in Atlanta, told reporters during a press conference after the preliminary hearing on Sept. 23 that their clinic would continue to provide abortion services pending litigation.

“We want to make sure people who are listening know our clinics are open, we are ready to receive them,” Jackson said, “and we will make sure they get the care that they need no matter what.”

Pro-life advocates say they, too, will "continue to reach out to women in unexpected pregnancies" despite court proceedings — including Southeast clinic Options Now in Valdosta.

"All lives matter — the born and the unborn," Becky Deas, executive director, said in a statement. "The bill has already had a positive effect by highlighting the importance of protecting the unborn by making the public aware of the unborn’s humanity."

For film industry, small relief

What lawmakers called "Bill HB481" caused Georgia’s immense film industry to take up arms. Hollywood studios from Netflix to Disney threatened to pull production out of the Peach State.

Ryan Millsap, chief executive officer of Blackhall Studios — a movie production company known for projects such as "Jumanji," "Godzilla" and "Venom" — said the preliminary injunction calmed a building storm.

“I think there is a collective sigh of relief that everybody can get back to the business of focusing on business,” he told CNHI. “This has been a huge distraction and a huge point of contention that’s created a lot of uncertainty and dislocation in the entertainment business in Georgia.”

Directors, producers, cinematographers, actors and actresses started refusing to work in Georgia, taking their work and dollars to location rivals such as the United Kingdom and Canada. Millsap said his company was among those that lost projects when producers and directors pulled out because of the abortion ban.

“Our reputation in the world is pretty outstanding,” Millsap said. “Pre-heartbeat bill, Georgia was thought of as a mecca of entertainment production, creativity and the arts. Post-heartbeat, we definitely had a setback in our global reputation as an inventive, imaginative state.”

The state estimates that 92,100 Georgia jobs are affiliated with the film industry and that the industry has a $9.5 billion impact on the economy.

“The guys have all shown — Netflix, Disney, Sony, Warner Brothers — that they were willing to continue to do business, at least they were hopeful to continue to do business, while the bill played out in court,” Millsap said. “Getting the injunction is huge because now for those companies, the supply chain shouldn’t be as disrupted.”

Riley Bunch covers the Georgia Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites.

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