American Bar Association

Abortion law prompts more than 200 ABA members to protest plan to hold 2021 meeting in Atlanta

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Atlanta on a map with a pin in it

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Updated: On Friday, the ABA Board of Governors will be discussing whether to move the 2021 ABA Midyear Meeting from Orlando, Florida, to Atlanta. In a letter sent on Tuesday, 243 ABA members urged the Board not to select Atlanta as an alternate site “in light of Georgia’s new draconian anti-choice legislation.”

The ABA is moving its meeting from Orlando for economic reasons. Contracts were signed with Orlando hotels years ago when the ABA’s midyear meeting had a larger footprint. Holding the meeting in Orlando would have bound the ABA to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars more in food and beverage fees than necessary. The ABA’s meetings and travel staff and leaders gathered bids from across the country for alternatives and the Standing Committee on Meetings and Travel decided to recommend Atlanta in late April.

In May, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed a bill into law that would ban abortion as early as six weeks into a woman’s pregnancy.

The law “demonstrates a flagrant disregard for the health and lives of women, as well as contempt for medical professionals who face criminal penalties if they perform an abortion after a fetal heartbeat has been detected (which can occur before a woman even knows she is pregnant),” according to the letter’s signatories.

They include past ABA presidents Laurel Bellows, Karen Mathis and James Silkenat, as well as House of Delegates members, Board of Governors nominees, ABA Journal Board of Editors members and other prominent ABA leaders.

Their letter contends that the association’s meeting locations should be consistent with its commitment to defending liberty, pursuing justice and upholding the rule of law, and that states like Georgia that have implemented anti-abortion laws demonstrate contempt for those values.

“The American Bar Association serves as the voice of equality, individualism, the rule of law and fairness,” Bellows told the ABA Journal in an interview. Bellows served her term as ABA president from 2012 to 2013. “Any decision that supports a state that governs in direct conflict with these principles will fly in the face of the standards to which every leader of the American Bar Association hopes to adhere.”

Georgia, Alabama, Missouri and states in similar positions “should not be honored or financially supported by the presence of the ABA mid-year meeting,” the letter says.

The ABA members also contend in the letter that it is “confounding” that the Board of Governors would consider moving the 2021 Midyear Meeting to Atlanta in the midst of the association’s renewed focus on growing membership.

Choosing Atlanta sends the message that the ABA does not live by its principles and is likely to drive away both prospective and current members, they add.

“We should not be asking our members to choose between their principles and their professional interest in participating in the mid-year meeting,” the ABA members say in the letter. “If that is the choice we are required to make, however, many of us will choose principle and forego attendance.”

Former ABA President Linda Klein, who served in the 2017-2018 term, told the National Law Journal that she felt boycotting the state would be a missed opportunity.

“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,” Klein, who is a senior managing shareholder at Baker Donelson in Atlanta, told the publication. “There is so much more the ABA can do by coming here and holding a program with skilled and experienced advocates.”

In a follow-up letter sent Wednesday, four of the ABA members who signed the initial letter—Lauren Stiller Rikleen, Kathleen J. Hopkins, Estelle Rogers and Roberta D. Liebenberg—say they wanted to respond to a concern that the ABA “does not select its locations based on a litmus test of that state’s laws.”

While this is generally a wise approach, they say, the Georgia abortion law goes beyond “normal political considerations.”

“This law is nothing less than a direct attack on women that should not be implicitly or explicitly tolerated by a bar association that stands for the values that the ABA has long espoused,” their letter states.

They add that they are not asking the ABA to break a contract but are “simply requesting that at this time you not contract with a state that has demonstrated such extraordinary disdain for women.”

Rikleen is a current member of the ABA Journal Board of Editors, and Hopkins is a past chair.

The ABA declined to comment while the Board of Governors is considering the matter. The ABA Board of Governors will evaluate the recommendation and alternatives at its meeting on Friday.

Historically, when the ABA is faced with economic reasons for shifting a meeting location, the decision has been to move the meeting to Chicago, the ABA’s headquarter city. The ABA faced similar pressures in 2010 to boycott meetings in Arizona because of controversial immigration legislation.

Updated on June 6 with more information about the economic reasons for changing the venue from Orlando.

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