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What Massachusetts Can Learn From Georgia's Abortion Bill 

Women hold signs to protest HB 481 at the state Capitol in Atlanta on , Tuesday, April 2, 2019. (John Bazemore/AP)
Women hold signs to protest HB 481 at the state Capitol in Atlanta on , Tuesday, April 2, 2019. (John Bazemore/AP)

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On March 29, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker signed a bill that allocates up to $8 million from now through June of 2020 to health care providers who stand to lose federal Title X funding because they provide abortions or even just abortion referrals. In doing so, he united with Democrats and Republicans in the state Legislature to protect not just abortion rights, but access to reproductive health care in general for men and women in the state.

That same day, the Republican-led Georgia state legislature sent a bill to that state’s governor, Brian Kemp, that would lower the threshold for legally ending a pregnancy from its current 20 weeks, to the moment a fetal heartbeat is detected, which is as early as six weeks. While the Georgia bill allows later abortions for victims of rape or incest, or in cases where the mother’s life is at risk or the fetus is unlikely to be viable, it explicitly does not make exceptions for women who, at six weeks, still didn’t know that they were pregnant. Given that most women only discover that they are pregnant between 4 and 7 weeks from conception, this legislation would effectively ban abortion outright.

Similar legislation in other states has passed and been subsequently ruled unconstitutional. The American Civil Liberties Union has vowed to fight Georgia’s bill as well, and as long as Roe v Wade stands, it seems likely that this attempt to abolish a woman’s right to choose will also be overruled.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker speaks at the National Governor Association 2019 winter meeting in Washington, Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker speaks at the National Governor Association 2019 winter meeting in Washington, Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

So why is the Georgia state legislature enacting legislation that is likely to be blocked? Perhaps they think that if they somehow succeed in appealing their way up to the Supreme Court, the newly minted Trump appointees will join with their reactionary brethren in overturning Roe v Wade.

But more likely, they see this as yet another opportunity to inflame passions, sow divisions, and brand their opponents as “baby killers” — a tried-and-true technique for activating their political base in the wake of a Governor’s race the GOP nearly lost, and in anticipation of a contested 2020 presidential election.

In that respect, Georgia Republicans are not so different from Jim Lyons, the new chairman of the Massachusetts Republican Party. As Massachusetts chair of Ted Cruz’s losing presidential campaign, as a former member of the state legislature who opposed funding for Planned Parenthood and opposed equal rights for transgender people, Lyons has made no secret of his ultra-conservative views. Thus it should be no surprise that despite his initial promise to unify the state Republican Party (after conservative Scott Lively ran against Baker for the GOP nomination last fall), he’s lost little time in trying to polarize it.

No woman has an impulsive or frivolous abortion.

And what easier place to start than another needless battle over abortion rights?

Massachusetts Democrats in the state Senate are trying to expand the conditions under which abortion can be legally performed. (Today some women in Massachusetts must travel to other states or countries to obtain abortions after 24 weeks.)

They have filed Bill S.1209, which states:

A physician, acting within their lawful scope of practice, may perform an abortion when, according to the physician’s best medical judgment based on the facts of the patient’s case, the patient is beyond 24 weeks from the commencement of pregnancy and the abortion is necessary to protect the patient’s life or physical or mental health, or in cases of lethal fetal anomalies, or where the fetus is incompatible with sustained life outside the uterus.

In other words, if it becomes apparent after 24 weeks that a fetus has a condition that will not allow it to survive outside the womb, a condition like anencephaly (in which the fetus fails to develop a brain), this proposed bill would allow a physician to terminate the pregnancy.

But turning the spirit of the law inside out, Lyons and his team have launched a Facebook advertising campaign charging the bill’s cosponsors with supporting infanticide. “This bill fails the feeblest standard for a decent and humane society,” Lyons blustered, falsely claiming that “the extreme infanticide bill removes all practical limitations on aborting unborn babies.”

Lyons' tactics reflect a belief that if he can activate a fiercely emotional response from voters, they'll ignore other policies with far broader impact.

Baker opposes Bill S.1209 for no articulated or justifiable reason. But he’s at least had the decency to scold Lyons’ incendiary tactics, saying “I don't believe in questioning motives, I don't believe in questioning character and I think the inflated language that exists on all sides in politics has made it much harder for people to do the work that they're supposed to do on behalf of the people they serve and they represent.”

But Lyons' tactics are more than yet another illustration of how inflammatory rhetoric is used to obscure rather than enlighten, to divide rather than to unite. They reflect a penchant for diversion, a belief that if he can activate a fiercely emotional response from voters, they'll ignore other policies with far broader impact.

After all, this is the same Jim Lyons who earned a 97 percent favorability rating from the National Rifle Association and a 0 percent favorability rating from the Environmental League of Massachusetts Action Fund; the same (now-former) legislator who opposed increases to the minimum wage, paid family leave and greater access to affordable, high-quality health insurance.

No woman has an impulsive or frivolous abortion. No woman carrying the possibility of a future life chooses easily to shut that door. But the key word here is “possibility.” A 6-week-old fetus — the size of a pea — has glorious potential, but not yet any viable existence. A 25-week-old fetus that cannot survive outside the womb has no future.

And that's what makes the sanctimony meted out by Lyons and his political allies so nauseating. The children killed in Sandy Hook, the teenagers gunned down in Parkland, the adults massacred in Las Vegas — they were more than possibilities. The families who have lost homes and lives to climate-change induced storms, floods and drought were already walking this earth. All of these people are being opposed and abandoned by the same hypocrites; people like Jim Lyons and his analogues in the Georgia legislature, who tar others as supporters of radical infanticide.

Unless and until these politicians are willing to act on behalf of the living, their words should be ignored and their actions overturned.

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Julie Wittes Schlack Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Julie Wittes Schlack writes essays, short stories and book reviews for various publications, including WBUR's Cognoscenti and The ARTery, and is the author of “This All-at-Onceness” (Pact Press, 2019).

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