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Dark days for Roe vs. Wade?

Election shifts balance of power on abortion rights

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Election day claimed many casualties this year, but none fared worse than Georgia's abortion rights advocates.

In one night, they lost the governor's office and the speaker of the state House of Representatives. Two days later, party switchers turned state Senate leadership over to abortion opponents.

Now, for the first time since the Supreme Court's 1973 landmark Roe vs. Wade decision, Georgians could see new laws mandating 24-hour waiting periods, requiring parental consent and banning third-trimester abortions.

"I think women are going to lose the rights to medical decisions and control over their bodies," says Rep. Doug Teper, D-Atlanta. "There may be repercussions for all those people who thought they had a reason to vote against Gov. [Roy] Barnes. It's the law of unintended consequences."

Barnes wasn't even the state's most important figure in the fight against abortion restrictions. That person was 78-year-old Speaker Tom Murphy. For nearly three decades, he was a bulwark against attempts to enact limits on the procedure. As a result, Georgia still has relatively few restrictions compared to other southern states.

"The interesting thing is I never had a conversation with the speaker about that issue," says Tom Bordeaux, D-Savannah, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee. He adds that Murphy never told him to kill abortion-related legislation.

Murphy didn't have to. Bordeaux is solidly pro-choice. He'd simply refer bills from anti-abortion legislators to the Judiciary Committee. Then, Bordeaux wouldn't call for a vote. That kept the state out of the patient-doctor relationship, and it kept an important piece of the Democratic coalition loyal. It also prevented legislators from having to go on the record with votes that could be used against them by conservative challengers in their home districts.

But Murphy lost re-election, along with Barnes. Gov.-elect Sonny Perdue, who in a pre-election interview indicated he wouldn't push for anti-abortion measures, nevertheless is a longtime abortion foe and has said he would sign restrictions into law.

While the Senate's Republican leadership may have its hands full in the legislative session that begins in January with the flag, re-districting and the budget, Sen. Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, acknowledges GOP control makes it friendlier territory for anti-abortion bills.

"My expectations are that there will be senators who want to pursue whatever the federal courts have permitted," says Johnson, who was nominated Thursday by his party to become the Senate's new president pro tempore.

He expects recent party switcher Don Cheeks, R-Augusta, to reintroduce legislation banning late-term or so-called partial birth abortions.

The biggest question -- and greatest hope -- for abortion-rights advocates is whether they can rely on support from the House, where a Democratic majority still reigns and Murphy protege Terry Coleman is the Democrats' nominee for speaker.

Coleman's record on women's reproductive issues is mixed, says Ebony Barley, spokeswoman for Georgia Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. For example, Coleman voted for an amendment that would've weakened a 1999 bill that required state health plans to cover contraceptives for women. But because of Murphy's success in preventing votes in the full House, Coleman, like other longtime legislators, doesn't have a lengthy on-the-record history with the abortion issue.

Elizabeth Appley, an attorney who has litigated reproductive freedom cases in Georgia for more than two decades and is a lobbyist for women's health groups, says she expects Coleman to hold the line against new abortion restrictions.

"As part of the leadership over the years, he has participated in the commitment in the House to protect a woman's right to choose," she says. Appley also cites the selection of liberal Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, as majority whip as strong statement that the party would protect "fundamental Democratic principles" -- abortion rights being one.

Bordeaux suggests that Coleman might receive support in prospective fights from Democrats and many Republicans, who would prefer to ignore the hot button issue altogether. While abortion foes, such as Georgia Right to Life, may push new limits on the procedure, "many Republicans will be hoping we succeed" in keeping it bottled up in committee, Bordeaux says.

kevin.griffis@creativeloafing.com

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