The History of The Georgia Right to Life Committee
In early 1970, when there was a push to liberalize the Georgia Law on abortion, concerned citizens came together and the early workings of Georgia Right to Life were in progress. Jay and Cheryl Bowman, who had just had their first baby, a son, Chip (Jacob III), decided they must do something. Jay attended a public meeting at Lenox Square in Atlanta and met three mothers, Terry Weaver, Shirley Williams and Teresa Gernazian. They started a letter-writing campaign out of their homes to encourage pro-life voting, and these three ladies worked with Jay in the early set up of Georgia Right to Life.
The Bowmans began to study and research abortion in great detail and also talked with people in other states that had set up Right to Life groups. By 1971, the Georgia Right to Life Committee was incorporated. The Bowmans began speaking on the issue both as a couple and individually. They spoke at schools, churches of all denominations and civic groups. At one point, they were giving three speaking engagements every week. They began a newsletter and gathered names of pro-life people throughout Georgia. An office was set up in the garage of their home, and volunteers would help send out packets of information or put out a state newsletter. Grocery bags were placed around the floor in the dining room; and volunteers would fold, staple and file in grocery bags by zip code. It was not long before they were setting up chapters in other parts of the state. To avoid constant babysitters, they would sometimes take Chip with them and he would play on a blanket as they gave their speech and answered questions.
On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of abortion on demand throughout our country. Jay regularly debated and opposed Margie Hames, Esquire, who was the ACLU lawyer who argued the pro-abortion side in Doe vs. Bolton – the Georgia case decided in 1973.
The Bowmans debated abortionists and pro-abortion people on radio and TV. Jay appeared in the “hot seat” on a WAGA show called “Confrontation” and was well respected. Cheryl appeared for 30 minutes on WSB-TV’s “Today in Georgia” and was able to show pictures of the developing baby. After that particular show, she received a call saying that someone decided against an abortion because of information learned on the show. With very short notice Cheryl would sometimes be asked for a radio interview from their home. She would first arrange with her neighbors to help with her son so that she could lay out her documentation on the kitchen table and conduct the telephone interview.
When an article appeared in “Newsweek” in 1975 about Georgia Right to Life, people from all over the United States were calling their home wanting to talk about the issue. It was about this time that the office was moved out of the Bowmans’ garage and into a small office in Decatur, as it became necessary to get the swelling grassroots movement out of their home.
Jay was a registered lobbyist in the Georgia General Assembly. In addition to drafting and promoting pro-life legislation, he would canvas the Georgia House members and Senators for their views on abortion, which would be compiled and published by Georgia Right to Life. He took vacation days to spend time at the Georgia Capital when the General Assembly was in session.
Packets of information were prepared and given to students for reports, and press releases were put out to combat abortion-related issues. Annually, a booth was obtained at the Southeastern Fair and manned for ten days. One evening the first year, a youth minister named Steve working the booth was startled when a couple asked him if “this is really what an unborn baby looks like at this age.” Steve replied, “Yes, it is,” and went on to explain that the unborn baby develops quite fast. After about fifteen minutes of talking and arguing somewhat by the booth, the couple came back to Steve and told him that they were married and expecting, but that they had an appointment for an abortion because this was not a good time for them to have a baby. However, after seeing the information at the booth, they decided against the abortion. It was concluded that this one incident made having the booth all worth it!
As a volunteer often swamped with more requests than could be taken care of, Cheryl would often go into the basement garage and work for a short duration. “I would take care of three requests at a time in honor of the Blessed Trinity. Without fail, the request being answered was ‘just in time.’ God always took care of us,” she says.
When the Bowmans had to move out of state, Georgia Right to Life has continued to grow in to the organization it is today: having over 225,000 pro-life households, a bi-monthly newsletter with a circulation of around 60,000, funding a multi-media campaign, and seven paid staff members!
Many ask how the abortion movement really got started in Georgia, and most do not realize that the Doe v. Bolton case that legalized abortion on demand throughout all nine months of pregnancy was a Georgia case! The following excerpts show the beginnings and workings of the abortion movement in Georgia.
SILENT PARTNERS: The Role Of The Church In Liberalizing Georgia’s Abortion Laws
The year was 1967. Georgia’s current abortion law enacted in 1876, which allowed abortion to save the life of the mother, was seen by most “progressives” as “hopelessly outdated”. It was obvious to Democrat Representative Richard Starnes of Rome that a liberalized abortion law was much needed.
Starnes was very concerned about protecting doctors. The Rubella epidemic of 1964-65 and resulting fear of birth defects precipitated about 70 “illegal” abortions. Although no doctor had been prosecuted, the Medical Association of Georgia favored loosening Georgia’s abortion laws to provide protection for doctors performing therapeutic abortions.
Starnes was also influenced by the growing feminist and population control movements of the late ’60’s and longed for Georgia to receive favorable national attention by becoming the first state to pass liberalized abortion laws.
In the 1967 Georgia Legislative Session Rep. Starnes introduced what eventually became House Bill 281. The bill-in its passage through the State House and Senate in 1967 and 1968-was amended many times in its finer points. From beginning to end, however, it was seen by opponents and proponents alike as one of our nation’s most permissive abortion laws.
H.B. 281 would allow a physician, with the approval of two other doctors, to perform an abortion if: 1) continuation of the pregnancy would endanger the life of the mother or would seriously or permanently injure her health, 2) the fetus would very likely be born with a grave, permanent, or irremediable mental or physical defect, or 3) the pregnancy resulted from forcible or statutory rape.
Many legislators saw H.B. 281 for what it really was: a thinly disguised abortion-on-demand bill. There were no limits placed on how far along in a pregnancy an abortion could be performed. “Health” was left undefined-and it was understood by those closely involved with the bill that the broadest interpretation could be used-even including “mental health”. Senator Frank Miller of DeKalb County called the three-doctor approval of “safe guard” a “gimmick”.
It is interesting to note that the long-time Speaker of the House, Rep. Tom Murphy, was a strong supporter of H.B. 281. In 1967 Murphy was already a powerful and well-positioned member of the Georgia legislature.
Of course, the real issue was the humanity of the unborn child and the value of (even imperfect) human life.
Senator William Searcy of Savannah stated, “We’re dealing with the law and the only reason to ever have law is to preserve and protect life and then property. The preservation of life is the ultimate aim of law-and here we have a bill which is permitting the taking of a human life.”
How did it happen that a state squarely in the middle of the “Bible Belt” eventually passed the most liberal abortion law (up to that time) in the nation? How was it that pro-abortion groups studied the passage of H.B. 281 in Georgia in order to teach other pro-aborts how to pass liberalized abortion laws in their own states?
It was easy. The Church did nothing.
After debate on the bill became public in January 1968, Georgia Senators were struck by the fact that ministers and congregations – Protestant and Catholic alike – were neither vocal nor organized in opposing H.B. 281. The Senators surmised that the morality of the bill was not much of a concern.
H.B. 281 passed in the Georgia House of Representatives 129-3. The next year it passed in Senate 33-17. Except for one public hearing in 1968, the bill came and went with little notice and even less concern and opposition from the public or the church.
A group of about 50 northeast Atlanta women banded together to fight H.B. 281 in the fall of 1967. The Concerned Committed Citizens: Right to Life Committee was co-chaired by three Catholic housewives: Terry Weaver, Shirley Williams, and June Webb. They organized speaking engagements; disseminated information about the bill and abortion; and organized letter-writing and lobbying campaigns against H.B. 281. Unfortunately, the religious community offered little support to these ladies. Even well known Atlanta-area Catholic lawyers, physicians, and clergy refused to appear at the public hearing to debate the bill.
Prominent local organizations favored liberalizing Georgia’s abortion law – the Medical Association of Georgia (MAG) and the Atlanta Ob-Gyn Society among them. In lobbying Governor Maddox to sign the bill, MAG physicians seemed most interested in pressing the issue that H.B. 281 would “hold down” the birth-rate of retarded children and thus save the state money.
The newspapers favored liberalizing Georgia’s law. The Atlanta Journal gushed, “One of the most enlightened bills in the nation has been passed by both chambers of the legislature and awaits only the signature of Gov. Maddox.” Then in true “newspeak” the paper proclaimed, “Abortion in such cases does more to preserve life than to take it.” (Atlanta Journal, March 2, 1968)
H.B. 281 came to the desk of Governor Lester Maddox-for him to sign, veto or simply ignore and it would automatically become law in 30 days.
Gov. Maddox struggled with the morality of the bill. He went to a local pastor’s association for direction-asking the representatives of 32 denominations (through the Christian Council of Metropolitan Atlanta) to vote on H.B. 281. The pastors’ association was asked to express their own opinion on whether the 1876 abortion law should be liberalized. The vote returned: 117-6 in favor of the new law. This vote by Atlanta’s religious leaders likely convinced Maddox that H.B. 281 was not immoral.
Maddox would not sign but did not veto the bill and it became law on April 15, 1968.
George Grant, in his book Grand Illusions (an expose of America’s number one abortion provider, Planned Parenthood) devotes an entire chapter to the “Divine Tragedy” of the modern church’s betrayal of the biblical sanctity of life ethic.
Citing the modern American Church’s ambivalence to life, mercy, justice, and truth, Federal Judge John F. Dooling, Jr. ruled in 1984 that the Supreme Court’s pro-abortion stand was “in the mainstream of the nation’s religious tradition.”
By all indications, he was right. Abortion is still legal in America because American Christians still want it legal. Running in the face of scripture and tradition, truth and experience, wisdom and discretion, and sanctity and justice, the Church has bolstered the sordid killing business of Planned Parenthood by both its complacency and complicity, for both its convenience and continuance.
In our own state, we continue to reap the bitter harvest sown over 30 years ago by leaders who should have known better. Over 33,000 children are aborted every year in Georgia. Isn’t it time for the Church to rise up and say, “ENOUGH!”?