For just a few moments March 7, right before the passage of the hate crimes bill and the long debate over the “heartbeat” abortion bill, the dark shadow of one of the most horrific crimes against children in recent memory passed across the Georgia House chamber.
It came before the vote on a bill authored by Rep. Bill Hitchens, a Republican from Effingham County, where the bodies of Mary and Elwin Crocker Jr. were unearthed. Five people, including four family members, have been charged in connection with their torture, starvation and death. The bill was intended to make it harder for people to pull their children out of school under the guise of homeschooling them without actually doing so.
The bill had originally required more reporting from parents who home- school their children, but ran into resistance from the Georgia Home Education Association, which argued that more home-school regulation would not result in less abuse. After intense negotiations and seven or eight rewrites, the final version simply directs schools to contact the Division of Family and Children Services when parents of children who have dropped out of school don’t file a notice of intent to home-school them. It passed, 135-28.
This wasn’t the most controversial measure voted on by the House that eventful evening, but it provides a good frame for what followed. It illustrates how hard it can be to achieve consensus around issues involving parents and their children, even when everybody has the best intentions and the most horrible incentive to do something.
Crossover Day, the last day for a bill to pass one chamber of the General Assembly in order to be considered for final passage that year, always comes with a dollop of drama. More than in most years, this one seems to have marked a real passage.
You could sense some of the strains emerging within the Republican caucus in Rep. Sheri Gilligan’s opposition to the hate crimes bill authored by Rep. Chuck Efstration. And later among the Democrats, also, when a group of older, mostly male Democrats came to the well to attempt to convince Rep. Renitta Shannon to stand down after her refusal to stop speaking in opposition to the abortion bill.
There was also a sense of passage regarding something more fundamental than the differences within and between the parties.
Women have been the primary voices for one side or the other in previous legislative debates, but it’s hard to remember anything that compares to the debate over the abortion bill, which filled most of the evening.
Four Republican men and two Republican women spoke for the bill, including Rep. Mark Newton, vice-chair of the House Health and Human Services Committee. The chair, Rep. Sharon Cooper, who carried her Marietta seat by a handful of votes last year, voted for the bill in committee but was excused from the vote before the full House. She was one of several mostly suburban Republicans who chose not to vote on the measure.
Eleven Democratic women, two Democratic men and one Republican woman spoke against the bill in what was obviously going to be a losing attempt to stop it, even with the Republican no-shows. That was as long a continuous stretch of women’s voices, perhaps, as has ever been heard in the House.
How they talked was new, as well. Rep. Ed Setzler, the bill’s author, and the child of a woman who gave him up for adoption, spoke in front of a laptop he said contained a gruesome picture of the results of an abortion. He wasn’t going to turn the laptop and show it, he said.
His female opponents, on the other hand, went into considerable detail about the conditions that could cause women to seek abortions, and what abortions were like the days before they were legal. They talked about the abortions of women they knew, and two legislators, Shannon and Rep. Park Cannon, talked about their own abortions.
After almost 20 years, Shannon said, “I do not regret my decision, and I am not scarred.”
The bill passed, 93-73, and goes on to a Senate that has been reluctant to take up the issue and Gov. Brian Kemp, who unsuccessfully pushed an alternative. It nevertheless was a high-water mark for Georgia anti-abortion activists, looking forward now to a day when the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade. At what cost or benefit to the Republicans, only time will tell, but the debate over this bill has set the stage for a new era in the General Assembly.
Tom Baxter is a veteran Georgia journalist who writes for The Saporta Report.