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Abortion's battle lines

As Roe v. Wade turns 30, Georgia women have the right to choose, but not always the means

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In the mid-'90s, travelers headed through middle Georgia on I-75 were greeted by a billboard boasting, "Macon -- Still abortion-free!"

These days, the sign is gone from the outskirts of town. Save for the infrequent flare-up, gone too are the loud anti-abortion protests and the huge, gory photos of fetal carnage that once seemed part of the landscape outside Atlanta clinics. It's a rare week when any abortion-related news makes local headlines or rates inclusion in a 6 o'clock newscast in Georgia; believe it or not, it's been six years since a Sandy Springs clinic was damaged by a bomb allegedly placed by FBI fugitive Eric Rudolph. And on the national scene, the landmark Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion stands little chance of being overturned any time soon, according to prominent Supreme Court-watchers.

All of which might lead one to assume, on the eve of the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, that abortion rights are enjoying an untroubled era in the Peach State. The battle, however, rages on. The open warfare of the early '90s has been transformed into a daily struggle over women's access to clinical services. The frontal attacks of pro-life fanatics have given way to a carefully engineered misinformation campaign designed to confuse and frighten young women into staying away from clinics. And the threat of violence always lurks in the back of the minds of abortion providers and clinic workers.

Fact is, the sign outside Macon may be gone, but its claim remains as accurate as ever. That's not to say local women don't have abortions, just that they aren't getting them in Georgia's sixth-largest city.

In rural Georgia, the nearest clinic is likely an hour or two away by car -- farther, if you need a second-trimester abortion. Most places advertising abortion services instead offer only Scripture-based scolding and gruesome videos. And, in most cases, state law forbids Medicaid dollars to be used to pay for the procedure.

"Rich white women are always going to be able to get an abortion," says Errin Vuley, executive director of Georgians for Choice. "The problem is with women who are poor, black or who live outside urban areas."

Given these road blocks and dead ends, it's easy to see a woman's right to choose as an ever-shrinking commodity, like having a voucher nobody seems willing to redeem.

"Everybody has their limit," explains Sam, a local abortion doctor with the Feminist Women's Health Center in Midtown (who asked us not to use his real name). "The more barriers you put in the way, the fewer people will find their way around them."

When it comes to practical restrictions on abortion rights, Georgia rates an "F," according to the National Abortion Rights Action League, the country's leading pro-choice lobbying group.

The failing grade seems largely based on the paltry number of clinics and hospitals that perform abortions. But, like any letter grade, it doesn't tell the whole story.

Largely because of former House Speaker Tom Murphy's long reign, the laws in Georgia are less restrictive than in most Southern states. In Alabama, for instance, a girl under 18 can't get an abortion unless she obtains written consent from one of her parents.

In Mississippi, the same girl would need

both parents' consent, and would have to wait an extra day because of the misnamed "woman's right to know" law (see accompanying story, next page). Louisiana goes still further, requiring parental consent to be notarized, barring public hospitals from performing elective abortions and declaring the state's eagerness to ban abortions altogether, if and when the U.S. Supreme Court changes its mind. South Carolina officials have taken to harassing clinics there by citing them with minor building-code violations.

By contrast, Georgia -- which requires that a minor merely tell one of her parents she's planning to have an abortion -- shines as a beacon of progressive thought. In fact, because state law allows second-trimester abortions up to 26 weeks, long the accepted threshold of fetal viability, Atlanta has become something of a minor regional destination for women seeking abortions.

The fact remains, however, that there are fewer than 20 clinics operating in Georgia: two in Savannah, one each in Augusta and Columbus, about a dozen in metro Atlanta and none at all in the entire southern half of the state. And the handful of Georgia clinics that offer the more complicated and time-consuming second-trimester procedure are all in Atlanta.

Which means that if a woman living in Albany, Valdosta or Rome needs an abortion, she's got a long drive ahead of her -- or, rather, someone does.

It's for this reason that Helen Swanson launched the Volunteer Drivers Network. The Atlanta-based group helps women overcome the logistical barriers that stand in their path.

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