Georgia’s strict anti-abortion law remains on hold after federal court order

A federal court has postponed a decision on Georgia's stalled anti-abortion law until after the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on a Mississippi ban on procedures after 15 weeks into a pregnancy.

The decision was not unexpected. Chief Judge William Pryor suggested several times during a hearing Friday that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit should hold off until the nation's highest court settles a case that could have implications for Georgia's 2019 law.

The three-judge panel is handling an appeal from the state after a federal judge last year ruled the law unconstitutional and blocked it from taking effect.

“We STAY this appeal pending a decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization," the three-judge panel wrote in a one-sentence order Monday.

The states' laws vary significantly so it remains to be seen what impact the outcome of the Mississippi case will have here. Georgia's law would outlaw most abortions once fetal cardiac activity is detected, which is about six weeks into a pregnancy and before many women know they are pregnant.

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear oral arguments in the Mississippi case on Dec. 1, with a decision expected next summer.

Abortion rights advocates celebrated the decision late Monday.

“The court's stay means that Georgia's abortion ban remains blocked until further notice from the court," said Sean J. Young, legal director of the ACLU of Georgia, which is representing the plaintiffs. “Meanwhile, women will continue to be able to make their own healthcare decisions as U.S. Supreme Court precedent requires."

Georgia's law has never taken effect. Abortion services are legal in Georgia until 20 weeks into a pregnancy.

“Georgia's HB481 law is blatantly unconstitutional, which is why it was previously blocked by the federal courts," Staci Fox, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Southeast, said in a statement. “The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals appropriately acted on the binding 50-year precedent that says abortion is constitutionally protected health care, and our doors will continue to remain open."

Anti-abortion advocates had said they hoped other portions of Georgia's law – such as a tax break available to expecting parents – would be allowed to take effect while the direct ban on abortion was hashed out in the courts.

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.

State lawmakers urged to take action as 'rural Georgia falls into ruins'

The population shift from Georgia's small towns to its cities has accelerated over the last decade, frustrating the state's rural lawmakers and others who have worked for years to buck the trend.

Rural Georgia continues to represent the bulk of the state's land mass, but it is now only home to 21% of the state's population. A decade ago, one quarter of Georgians lived in the state's countryside.

This has likely implications for the upcoming redistricting process when lawmakers will use the new headcount to redraw district lines for legislative and congressional seats and reshuffle the state's growing population. It could mean fewer rural districts as the state's urban districts swell.

But the population trend is also an alarm bell for lawmakers and those advocating for rural communities, though the problems – workforce availability, educational attainment, health care access – are thorny.

“I hear people all over state government – all the way to the highest level – say we're the No. 1 state in which to do business," said David Bridges, who leads the Georgia Center for Rural Prosperity and Innovation.

“I have one question for the people that continue to say that over and over: How much time do you spend in rural Georgia? And how do you define the state? The state is not limited to 12 counties around Atlanta," he added. “While we may be in an aggregate way, the number one state in the union in which to do business, I can assure you that there are 125, 130 counties that don't see it that way."

Bridges called on lawmakers to act with urgency as “rural Georgia falls into ruins."

“I want to say that, in terms of urgency, time is running out. It really is. And the COVID pandemic has thrown a great deal of gas on this fire," Bridges said.

State lawmakers have spent years studying the forces working against Georgia's smallest communities and brainstorming potential solutions. Much of the sustained focus has been driven by the House Rural Development Council, which began meeting again Wednesday virtually after a break during the pandemic.

The legislative panel has been the source for many of the bills targeting rural communities, such as one empowering electric cooperatives to provide broadband service.

Much of Wednesday was spent digesting the population trends revealed by the 2020 Census numbers.

Some rural counties did grow over the last decade, said David Tanner, associate director of state services and decision support with Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia. Those counties are found in the north Georgia mountains, along the border of metro Atlanta and Bryan County, which touches Savannah's Chatham County and is the fastest growing county in the state.

“If we take those out of the mix, our rural population actually declined 38,000 people," Tanner said.

Dooly County in south Georgia lost the largest percentage of its population, with a 25% drop. Telfair and McIntosh counties were not far behind. Dougherty County, home to Albany, is the county with the sharpest decline in the number of residents, with nearly 9,000 fewer people counted.

But some state officials also see an opportunity as the pandemic likely has a lasting impact on how people work. Other states have seen remote workers resettle in rural communities without the worry of a regular commute.

“If we've learned nothing else from this pandemic, it's how important broadband is with more and more people working from home," said Rep. John Corbett, a Lake Park Republican. “As we continue to take a bite out of that elephant and get high-speed broadband out into rural Georgia, can we help reverse that trend and more people will want to work from home and in Moultrie instead of being up here in Buckhead?"

“That's an opportunity for many communities in Georgia," Tanner replied. “If they have great broadband, they can attract that remote worker."

Communities in Georgia, though, are still struggling to provide a quality internet connection. Several state and federal initiatives in the works are designed to help remedy that, but the progress has been slow. The number of locations in Georgia considered unserved has shrunk slightly from last year, yet about 482,000 remain.

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.

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