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Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / Sen. Chuck Payne answers a question during a candidate forum for the May 22 primary Tuesday, April 24, 2018 at Southeast Whitfield County High School in Dalton, Ga. Payne, the incumbent, will be running up against Scott Tidwell for the District 54 State Senate seat in the upcoming primary election.

The same week his colleagues introduced bills to ban most abortions, Georgia state Sen. Chuck Payne took a stand in the culture wars by denouncing New York's recent law.

The New York state Legislature passed the Reproductive Health Act on Jan. 22, allowing doctors to perform abortions after 24 weeks if the fetus is not viable. The bill also allows the operation in the third trimester if a doctor determines a pregnancy endangers a woman's health, and it removes abortion laws from the state's criminal code. (Previously, the state allowed abortions after 24 weeks only if a doctor determined the pregnancy could kill the woman.)

In a resolution — an entirely symbolic measure — Payne calls the law "inhumane, overreaching and bad public policy."

"New York has clearly stepped out of bounds as to what should be allowed in recognition of life," Payne, R-Dalton, said during a Senate Science and Technology Committee hearing Thursday.

State Sen. Jennifer Jordan, a member of the panel, acted bemused. She questioned why Payne would spend his time on this declaration. No Georgia lawmaker has proposed similar legislation to New York's. In fact, Jordan pointed out, Republicans are pushing to practically eliminate abortion.

"I'm still just having a problem with respect to why we're wanting to debate something that New York did, when obviously the people of this state in Georgia elected us to talk about what's going on with the people of the state of Georgia," said Jordan, D-Atlanta.

"It's basically to make a stand that life is valuable," Payne said later, after further back and forth.

"OK," Jordan said. "But your resolution doesn't necessarily say that. Your resolution talks about Senate Bill 240 in New York, specifically."

"And that they've gone too far," Payne said.

The committee was scheduled to vote Friday on Payne's resolution, determining whether to take it to the Senate floor, but the meeting was cancelled.

Elizabeth Nash, the senior state issues manager at the Guttmacher Institute, said a "firestorm" over abortion rights is playing out across the country, in anticipation of a decisive case reaching the U.S. Supreme Court. President Donald Trump's appointment of Brett Kavanaugh last fall ratcheted up the anticipation, as most Supreme Court scholars expect him to curtail rights more fervently than Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy did.

The New York legislature's action earlier this year is a response to Kavanaugh, Nash said. Lawmakers such as Payne have denounced New York as part of a broader Republican movement. At this weekend's Conservative Political Action Conference, Vice President Mike Pence said Democrats advocate for infanticide — the killing of a baby after birth.

"That's a response to some level of success by abortion rights supporters in protecting access," Nash said. "But it also masks the fact that those who oppose abortion don't only oppose abortion later in pregnancy. They oppose all abortion. They're trying to use that to distract from the fact that they are so extreme."

In addition to Payne's resolution, Georgia Republicans introduced two important abortion bills last week. On Monday, state Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, introduced a "heartbeat" bill. It would ban doctors from performing abortions when they can hear the fetus' heartbeat. This usually occurs in the sixth week of a woman's pregnancy. Currently, performing an abortion in Georgia is legal through the 20th week of pregnancy. Former Gov. Nathan Deal signed a bill in 2012 that reduced the cap from 24 weeks.

State Rep. Jodi Lott, R-Evans, dropped a "trigger" bill Thursday. This puts criminal legislation into place should the U.S. Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade. To make the law effective, the General Assembly also would have to sign a joint resolution.

Under Lott's bill, a doctor who performs an abortion could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison and fined up to $100,000. The bill has exemptions for abortions in cases in which a woman was raped, the pregnancy threatens the woman's life or if doctors detect the unborn child has a "profound and incurable" medical condition.

Republican lawmakers in Tennessee have introduced similar "heartbeat" and "trigger" bills.

On Thursday, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp announced his support for Lott's bill. That is a follow-up on a campaign promise from last year, when he promised to pass "the toughest abortion laws in the country."

"If abortion rights activists want to sue me bring it!" he wrote on Facebook last year.

Five states have enacted "trigger" laws, including Arkansas last month. In addition to Tennessee and Georgia, five states have similar bills pending, Nash said.

Virginia Galloway, a regional field director for the Faith & Freedom Coalition of Georgia, said she believes the "heartbeat" bill would have a stronger, more guaranteed impact in curtailing abortions.

"That one does the most good," she said. "[The 'trigger' bill] is fine. We're fine with that. But it kind of relies on something happening in the Supreme Court that is pretty much conjecture right now."

But the "heartbeat' bill also would face hurdles, Nash said. Courts struck down the same laws in North Dakota and Iowa. She said Iowa lawmakers declined to appeal the legislation, while North Dakota took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices declined to hear it.

Any number of cases could go before the highest court for a new, landmark abortion ruling. Nash said she is tracking three in particular from Indiana, Alabama and Louisiana. The Alabama law challenges the method of abortion after 14 weeks.

"Conservative legislatures are seeing an opportunity with a more conservative U.S. Supreme Court and looking to instigate a challenge," she said.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.

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