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The politics of abortion surge to forefront of 2020 debate

Georgia, other states move polarizing topic to front burner with new laws

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., a Democratic presidential candidate, traveled to Atlanta last week to rally for abortion rights in the wake of the state passing a law restricting them. The issue has returned to the political fore as several states pass laws to restrict abortion. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., a Democratic presidential candidate, traveled to Atlanta last week to rally for abortion rights in the wake of the state passing a law restricting them. The issue has returned to the political fore as several states pass laws to restrict abortion. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — It’s the worst day of your life. You’ve been told that your unborn baby is dying inside of you and you are presented with two horrible options: medically induce labor to deliver her early or carry the dangerous pregnancy to term, when your baby will suffocate outside of your womb.

At that gruesome moment, your state representative, a 63-year-old part-time farmer, walks into the exam room and tells you what he thinks you should do. If you choose anything else, you and your doctor could both be prosecuted for murder.

It seems absurd, but welcome to Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and nearly a dozen other states where a series of laws have passed or are being considered to drastically restrict women’s access to abortion.

In conversations with more than a dozen doctors and women in the days since Georgia’s six-week abortion ban was signed into law, I’ve heard the same warning again and again — that legislators, whether well-meaning or malicious, cannot contemplate and should not try to legislate the realities of pregnancy and childbirth, particularly when something goes horribly wrong.

Dr. Dorothy Mitchell-Leef, a veteran OB-GYN in Atlanta, was among the first women to establish a fertility practice in the United States. For an already underserved state like Georgia, where just 87 of 159 counties have an OB-GYN at all, Mitchell-Leef said she worries about sending women back to a time when abortion was illegal and dangerous.

“In my first year of medical school, there were abortion wards where women would come because they’d tried to end their own pregnancies with green soap or coat hangers,” she said. “They got very sick. They got infected. Some of them died. These are the kinds of things we are worried about.”

Mitchell-Leef described herself as more pro-life than pro-choice, but said the mostly male legislators she’s met with have no concept of the complications and realities of women’s health care.

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“I don’t think any of them had Biology 101,” she said. “The world is not a straight plan of perfection. Everybody should have the freedom to decide what to do for themselves. It’s between them and God, and it should be a private decision. Doctors just want to do the right thing by their patients.”

Dr. Andy Toledo is the legislative chair of the Georgia OB-GYN society and a reproductive endocrinologist in Atlanta. He also said legislators ignored both science and his group’s efforts to explain it as they passed the “heartbeat bill,” down to the fact that the sound of a beating heart at six weeks of pregnancy is not, in medical fact, a heartbeat.

“We told them in meetings that it’s the tissue that will develop into a heart over time at about 16 to 18 weeks of pregnancy,” he said. “They said thank you, but it doesn’t matter.”

Now that Georgia has passed its law severely restricting abortion, Toledo expects the next round of legislation to be an effort to give human embryos personhood status, which has been attempted in past sessions.

“This is just the beginning. Personhood is next. I’ve got 30,000 embryos frozen in my lab. They’re going to have to make me a city,” Toledo said. “If all of those are human beings, they’re going to have to give me representatives and we’re going to have to talk about voting rights. Where does the line get drawn? When does sanity come back?”

Toledo also predicted that, along with limits to health care services for women, OB-GYN residents will stay away from states that have passed abortion restrictions. “There’s no way I’d come to Georgia or any state that did this,” he said. “I’m embarrassed about this. I feel like women’s rights are being pummeled.”

A lot of women feel the same way.

“You can’t know what it’s like. Nobody wants to have this happen,” said Jennifer, who asked that her name be withheld because her own children do not know that she lost a baby before it was born. “Our baby died in utero at 22 weeks. My OB-GYN said she did not want me to go through labor, so she found someone to help me,” Jennifer explained. “It was technically a late-term abortion. Although the baby had died, all the paperwork said abortion. It saved me, and I thank all of my doctors for having the training to do it.”

Trinity Hundredmark, a family and criminal lawyer in Atlanta, described the day she found out her unborn daughter suffered from a bone disorder that would make breathing outside the womb impossible.

“I wanted for her to not be in pain, for her not to know a minute of suffering,” she said, speaking at an event Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand organized in Atlanta to protest the state’s abortion ban. “A part of me died that day, but there is no part of me that regrets this decision.”

As personal and private as that decision was for Hundredmark, major changes to abortion laws have rocketed the issue back to the national political stage as the balance of the U.S. Supreme Court has changed and the 2020 presidential race looms on the horizon. Anti-abortion activists insist they are protecting unborn children through their legislation. Many women and their doctors say they need protection from the legislation itself and the people who passed it.

In newly battleground states like Georgia, where the votes of suburban women are seen as critical to statewide contests, alarmed women say they won’t let the changes to abortion law stand without a fight.

“This is real. This is serious. It’s happening and it’s scary,” said Jennifer. “But there are meetings every night about unseating people who voted for it. If they think they are going to get away with this, they are wrong.”

Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.

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