The House of Delegates meets during the 2017 American Bar Association Midyear Meeting at the Hyatt Regency Miami. (Photo: J. Albert Diaz ALM)

Hundreds of American Bar Association members are urging the organization to skip Atlanta as a possible host for the 2021 midyear convention to protest Georgia’s new law banning most abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected.

Nearly 250 members of the nation’s largest professional organization of attorneys signed the June 4 letter to the ABA Board of Governors, urging them to reject a proposal to move the convention from Orlando to Atlanta in 2021.

“Our choice of meeting locations should be consistent with the association’s commitment to our values as an organization—defending liberty, pursuing justice, and revering the rule of law,” the letter said. “Georgia, Alabama, Missouri, and those other states that have rushed to implement these onerous new laws demonstrate contempt for these values, and should not be honored or financially supported by the presence of the ABA mid-year meeting.”

The letter is a response to the Georgia General Assembly’s passage this year of one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the nation. Gov. Brian Kemp signed the bill into law May 5, and it takes effect on Jan. 1. The law provides limited exceptions in cases that involve rape or incest but only if the woman reports an assault to police. It also permits abortions if the fetus is not viable or the mother’s health is threatened by a medical emergency.

Fetal heartbeats have been detected as early as six weeks, often before a woman even knows she is pregnant.

ABA spokeswoman Carol Stevens said the board of governors plans to discuss the issue at a meeting on Friday.

Linda Klein, a senior managing shareholder at Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz in Atlanta and a past ABA president, said Wednesday that if members object to Georgia’s law they should come to Atlanta instead of staying away.

“I think the ABA could better make its voice heard by coming to Georgia and bringing, as the ABA always does, the best and brightest minds on the topic to educate lawyers, journalists and the public about this issue,” she said. “There is so much more the ABA can do by coming here and holding a program with skilled and experienced advocates. It would be a shame to lose that opportunity.”

Klein also pointed out that the ABA meeting in question convenes in 2021. “We don’t know what a new Georgia legislature will do,” she said. “But I think most people believe that by 2021, this will be out of the hands of legislators and elected officials and into the hands of the courts.”

“We don’t know what the courts will do,” Klein continued. “But we do know that there are some highly experienced lawyers who could bring a lot of substance to the discussion. And the people of Georgia will miss out on that if the meeting is not here.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood and the Center for Reproductive Rights have called the law unconstitutional and promised a legal challenge.

The June 4 letter called the new law “draconian anti-choice legislation that demonstrates a flagrant disregard for the health and lives of women, as well as contempt for medical professionals” who face criminal penalties under the new law, if they perform an abortion after a fetal heartbeat has been detected.

The letter’s signers include past ABA president Laurel Bellows; numerous members of the ABA’s House of Delegates; a co-founder of the ABA Women’s Caucus; chairs of the ABA’s science & technology law and tort trial & insurance practice sections; co-chairs of the ABA’s cybersecurity legal task force, economic justice and rights of women committees; the chair of the ABA’s standing committee on public education; and past chairs of the ABA’s judicial division and its commission on women in the legal profession.

The letter also said the ABA’s decision on where to convene affects not only how the organization spends its own money but also requires expenditures by ABA members, by state and local bar associations, and other legal organizations that may elect to attend.

“We should not be asking our members to choose between their principles and their professional interest in participating in the mid-year meeting,” the letter said. Signers of the letter, among them lawyers and judges, also suggested that, if the board of governors chooses to convene in Atlanta in 2021, “Many of us will choose principle and forego attendance.”

The ABA convention in Las Vegas this year booked Caesar’s Palace and included at least three other hotels. Last year, the ABA convention took place at a convention center and seven hotels in Vancouver, British Columbia. In 2017, the convention extended to seven hotels.

The ABA is not alone in reconsidering Georgia as a location. Some of Hollywood’s largest film studios, which have helped to make filmmaking one of the state’s largest economic engines, have threatened to boycott Georgia, if the law is actually implemented. But Kemp has fired back, saying that, while “some folks don’t like this new law, I’m fine with that.”

Former Democratic gubernatorial candidate and attorney Stacey Abrams, who lost the election last year to Kemp, has launched her own campaign urging Hollywood not to pull out of Georgia but stay and instead contribute financially and politically to fight for repeal.

Kemp’s predecessor, former Gov. Nathan Deal, took a different tack in 2016 when confronted with a similar  controversy—the Georgia General Assembly’s passage of a “religious liberty” bill that civil rights organizations contended would legalize discriminatory practices against the state’s LBGTQ community.

That bill also spawned boycott threats by Hollywood, major sports franchises and businesses that underpinned the state’s lucrative convention and tourist industries. The NFL threatened to reject Atlanta’s 2019 Super Bowl bid—which it awarded to the city after Deal’s veto.

That same year, a new North Carolina law barring transgender people from using bathrooms associated with their identified gender cost Charlotte the 2017 NBA All-Star game.

A year earlier, Mike Pence—then Indiana’s governor—signed a similar religious liberty bill, triggering a backlash that included threats by the Indiana-based NCAA, the NBA and the NFL to hold all future championship games elsewhere. Mayors across the nation also barred the payment of all travel expenses to Indiana.

Pence eventually was forced to retreat, approving modifications to the  language of the original bill.

Read the letter: