The critical moment had come.
For almost four hours Monday afternoon and evening, members of the Georgia Senate had debated whether a proposed ban on abortions past the 20th week of pregnancy should apply even to “medically futile” pregnancies in which the fetus has little or no chance of life. Already approved in the House, the horrific provision would force expectant mothers in Georgia to carry those doomed pregnancies to full term, even though they knew that their pregnancies would end in excruciating death for their malformed babies.
At times, the debate had become bitterly personal. Many in the Senate chamber, particularly Republicans, also knew that the vote would determine whether they remained in good standing with Georgia Right to Life, which insists that medically futile pregnancies be included in the ban, no exemptions.
Now it was time to vote. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle called for a show of hands: Who supported an exemption for medically futile pregancies, and who did not?
The voting method was crucial. A vote by show of hands would not produce a roll call record of how individual legislators had voted. That in turn would mean that GRTL and other activists would have a harder time targeting senators who had dared to defy them.
Looking around the room, I saw a surprising number of hands raised — a clear majority in favor of exempting medically futile pregnancies. A knot of Republican senators in the back of the chamber, hidden from sight of most of those in the public gallery above, were among those with their hands raised.
Seeing what was about to happen, a senator opposed to the exemption quickly demanded an end to the hand count and asked for a recorded vote. A few of his fellow senators joined him in that demand. Cagle announced the vote would be recorded.
Suddenly the dynamics changed. Would support for the exemption now fade away?
The knot of senators in the back of the chamber broke up. I saw one Republican senator take a deep breath and mutter a grim “OK then” to himself, as if he was summoning his courage, before he marched back to his chair to cast his recorded vote.
The exemption passed with 13 pro-life Republican senators deciding to face down the extremists and vote their conscience, regardless of the political consequences. In alphabetical order, those 13 backing the exemption were John Bulloch of Ochlocknee, Ronnie Chance of Tyrone, Bill Cowsert of Athens, John Crosby of Tifton, Frank Ginn of Danielsville, Greg Goggans of Douglas, Tim Golden of Valdosta, Johnny Grant of Milledgeville, Bill Jackson of Appling, Fran Millar of Dunwoody, Jack Murphy of Cumming, Cecil Staton of Macon and Ross Tolleson of Perry.
Millar, who had spoken in favor of the exemption from the Senate floor, later grinned about what had happened. “You got your surprise of the day right there,” he said, noting that only a few of his fellow Republicans had switched positions once a recorded vote was required.
The bill itself, which reduces the legal time frame for abortion in Georgia to 20 weeks from the constitutionally required 26 weeks, went on to pass the Senate easily. Like similar bills in other states, it is intended to provoke a legal challenge that would end up in the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade.
However, because it was changed in the Senate, HB 954 must be voted on again in its amended form in the House. A lot depends on state Rep. Doug McKillip, the Athens Republican who has been the bill’s prime sponsor. He has argued fanatically against an exemption for medically futile pregnancies, claiming it would gut the bill. In fact, his extremism on the issue may help draw Republican primary opposition against him this summer.
If McKillip insists that the exemption be removed in the House to restore the bill’s ideological purity, the bill will die. With only two legislative working days left in the 2012 session, the bill may die anyway, a victim of its champions’ extremism.
(In a tweet to its followers this morning, for example, GRTL denounced the Senate action by claiming that “Eugenics has come to GA.”)
However, I’m not sure that those backing the bill really care. They could have crafted this legislation in ways that would have allowed it to pass easily, but they seem less interested in making law than in identifying those who would dare to defy them, even on such a deeply personal and profound issue.
Monday night, 13 Georgia Republicans were willing to stand up and take that risk.
– Jay Bookman