Women will serve in record-setting numbers for Georgia’s next legislative session
By Guest Columnist MELITA EASTERS, executive director of Georgia WIN List, a grassroots political action committee dedicated to recruiting, training, supporting, electing, and re-electing Democratic women.
As the Georgia General Assembly convenes Monday, women will hold a historic 82 seats for the first time since the Supreme Court of the United States set aside a five-decade precedent for abortion established with the Roe v. Wade case.
While the abortion issue has not been at the forefront of predictions for legislative action during this session, recent news events may well hasten such deliberations. Further, Georgia’s new General Assembly is dramatically different from the one which passed our state’s current abortion ban with only one vote to spare in the House in 2019.
On Thursday afternoon, South Carolina’s Supreme Court issued a 3-2 ruling which declared the state’s abortion ban at about six weeks is unconstitutional based on privacy concerns. The South Carolina decision is the first final ruling by any state Supreme Court on the state constitutionality of abortion since SCOTUS overturned Roe and left the matter to state discretion.
The South Carolina ruling said an abortion ban at roughly six weeks violates a provision in South Carolina’s constitution which reads: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable invasions of privacy shall not be violated.” However, the South Carolina court majority said the right to abortion is not “absolute” and must be “balanced against the state’s interest in protecting unborn life,” leaving a door open for future South Carolina legislative battles which Republican leaders were quick to promise.
Also in recent days, national pharmacy chains, including one with a significant presence in Georgia, have announced plans for making the prescription drug protocol for early-stage “medication” abortion care more widely available. This two-drug prescription protocol is now used for more than half of abortions nationwide.
Georgia is currently enforcing an approximate six-week abortion ban passed in 2019 which is now under Georgia Supreme Court review following a Fulton Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney ruling the law is unconstitutional. While Judge McBurney set aside the 2019 Georgia law last year, Attorney General Chris Carr appealed to the Supreme Court justices who allowed the law to stand. Currently, a hearing is scheduled in March to review issues raised by attorneys for both sides.
Many legal scholars and the legal arguments already filed in the Georgia case argue Georgia’s privacy case law is among the strongest in the nation, in part arising from a 1905 Georgia Supreme Court opinion in the Pavesich v. New England Life Insurance Company case. That case has been quoted in more than 200 cases nationwide and four SCOTUS opinions.
Georgia’s history of abortion access is also more liberal than other southern states. In fact, a case arising from Georgia, Doe v. Bolton, was argued before SCOTUS on the same day as Roe v. Wade five decades ago. At that time, Georgia abortion laws were more permissive than those in most northeastern states and the abortion issue had not yet been embraced by Republicans, evangelical Christians and the powerful Southern Baptist Convention.
The General Assembly which takes office Monday is dramatically different from the one which passed Georgia’s 2019 abortion ban. There will be a new speaker following the death of David Ralston and a new Lt. Governor Burt Jones elected last year. Many committee chairs in both houses will also be new to their jobs and the 2023 General Assembly has the largest “Freshman Class” in recent history. There are 10 new Senators and 42 new Representatives. Further, an additional four seats – one in the Senate and three in the House – will be filled during January 31 special elections or subsequent runoffs.
In 2019, few predicted Roe would be overturned. Republican legislators believed they could safely “satisfy” the far right of their voting base by voting in favor of abortion restrictions “secure” in the knowledge such laws would be overturned via court challenges based on the Roe precedent. With Roe overturned, most nationwide and Georgia polls indicate 67 to 70 percent of voters support the principles of Roe. Abortion bans are not popular with the general population and especially suburban Republican women who are key to maintaining a Republican majority in Georgia.
Of the 82 women who will take oaths of office Monday, 16 will serve in the 56-member Senate — 14 Democrats and two Republicans. The 180-member House will have 66 women – 48 Democrats and 18 Republicans. The 62 Democratic women outnumber their 20 Republican colleagues by a three-to-one ratio even though Republicans dominate both houses. Women will hold 34.7 percent of Georgia’s 236 legislative seats, giving the state a ranking of 22nd in the nation.
By contrast, in 2019 when Georgia’s abortion ban was passed, there were 72 women in the Georgia General Assembly, 55 of them Democrats and 17 of them Republicans for a total of 30.5 percent women, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics. For comparison, a record-setting 149 women (106 Democrats, 42 Republicans and one Independent) serve in the new 118th United States Congress holding 27.9 percent of the seats.
Georgia’s legislative diversity is not limited to gender at least on the Democratic side of the aisle. As the state moves toward majority-minority status sometime in the next few years, more legislators of color have been elected to represent minority groups that previously were not represented under the Gold Dome. Georgia will also continue to have more Black women legislators both by number and percentage than any other state in the nation.
Clearly, the dynamics of the current Georgia General Assembly are dramatically different than in 2019 when Georgia’s six-week abortion ban was passed by the slimmest possible majority.
Those Republicans who won office with campaign promises for further restrictions on reproductive freedom or even contraception bans may wish to think carefully and realistically about public opinion, the size of the freshman class and the increasing number of women they serve alongside before introducing legislation.
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