Jen Jordan and Chris Carr clash over abortion law during Georgia attorney general debate

The debate touched on crime and safety and campaign contributions

Georgia Attorney General Atlanta Press Club Debate 2022
Chris Carr (left), Martin Cowen (center), and Jen Jordan participate in the Atlanta Press Club Loudermilk-Young Debate.

Photograph by Reuters/Dustin Chambers/Pool

Abortion has been a cornerstone issue in every contest this election season, but in the race for attorney general, it’s built most of the foundation. Georgia’s new abortion ban—and whether to defend it in court—has dominated the fight between incumbent Attorney General Chris Carr, a Republican, and Democratic challenger Jen Jordan, an attorney and current state senator for District 6.

The new abortion law was front and center at Tuesday’s debate, hosted by the Atlanta Press Club, where Carr and Jordan were joined by Libertarian candidate Martin Cowen. Panelists Jill Nolin of the Georgia Recorder and Rose Scott of WABE launched directly into questions about the law and candidates wasted no time distinguishing their positions.

“I would challenge it in court,” Jordan said, noting that, in her legal opinion, the law violates Georgia’s state constitution, which has robust privacy protections. “My primary obligation is to enforce the state’s constitution—when there is a conflict between the two, the constitution controls,” Jordan said.

Carr has routinely attacked Jordan for this position, arguing that the role of attorney general is to enforce the state’s laws, regardless of personal opinion. “The attorney general cannot sue the state of Georgia—it defends the state of Georgia,” Carr said during the debate.

To clarify: as AG, Jordan could not sue the state, but she could legally decline to defend the law against a constitutional challenge. “The attorney general’s office has discretion when determining whether or how to respond to litigation.” Georgia State University law professor Anthony Michael Kreis told Atlanta magazine. “So, the attorney general could argue in court that the abortion law violates the state constitution and arguably has a duty to decline to defend.”

Cowen, whose Libertarian platforms calls for limiting government involvement in citizens’ lives, agreed with Jordan’s position, adding that if elected, he’d invoke prosecutorial discretion to avoid pursuing abortion providers. “I have always supported Roe v. Wade,” he said.

The LIFE Act, which went into effect after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe in June, bans most abortions after six weeks, when trace fetal cardiac activity can be detected. It also contains a so-called “personhood provision”, which confers legal rights on a fetus after the same six-week threshold. Supporters of the law say it’s not meant to prosecute women who obtain abortions, only medical providers who perform abortions or people who support those seeking them.

But some legal experts warn that the personhood provision could lead to criminal charges against people who, even unintentionally, injure or kill a fetus, including the pregnant person. And while the law states that naturally occurring miscarriages will not be prosecuted, medical experts say there is significant overlap between treatment and symptoms of miscarriage and abortion, and some are concerned about invasive scrutiny of their patients if prosecutors begin investigating pregnancy loss.

During the debate, Carr was emphatic that the abortion law excludes pregnant women from criminal penalties for abortion. “There is absolutely nothing in the statute that would say a pregnant woman would be prosecuted.” He added that attorneys general do not have authorization for prosecuting, adding, “it would be up to the district attorneys to make that determination.”

Jordan disagreed, saying the personhood provision puts women carrying fetuses at risk. “We think about the homicide statue, the manslaughter statute, even child abuse statute—all of that would actually apply to an embryo in a pregnant woman.”

In addition to abortion, the debate touched on crime and safety, issues that have animated voters and candidates alike in the midst of nationwide rises in violent crime. Carr, as the incumbent, has touted his new Gang Prosecution Unit, which launched in July with a budget of $1.3 million. This month, Carr’s office has announced indictments against 13 people suspected of gang-related violence. During the debate, Carr promoted both his gang unit and his human trafficking unit, saying, “(I’m) making sure that no matter where you live—Southwest Georgia, Southwest Atlanta, Buckhead, or Blairsville—you’re safe.”

He accused Jordan of turning a blind eye to rising crime in her district, noting that “crime went up 60 percent in her district in her short time in the legislature.” That attack fell a bit flat when Jordan retorted that crime went up 60 percent across the entire state. “On the Attorney General’s watch,” she added drily.

Hours before the debate began, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution broke a story that Carr had received campaign donations from Centene, a Missouri-based pharmaceutical company that is currently paying out millions in legal settlements for overbilling Medicaid in 13 states, including Georgia. State attorneys general typically handle such settlements. Panelist Jill Nolin asked Carr about the donations during the debate, and Jordan attacked him for his relationship with Centene, accusing him of “cozying up” with executives “who have allegedly defrauded the people of this state.”

Carr defended the donations, saying, “I’ve done everything above board, legally, ethically, and honestly.” He reiterated his position as a pro-business candidate, a “rule of law” official devoted to Georgia’s economic development. “I believe in the free-enterprise system.”

In closing statements, Carr and Jordan gave their final bids to voters and took a few parting shots at each other’s records. Cowen, who as a third-party candidate is a long shot for the office, delivered his statement last, offering a congenial close to what had otherwise been a contentious debate. “My father, Lindsey Cowen, was the dean of University of Georgia Law School . . . he would be so proud that all three candidates for attorney general are graduates of the University of Georgia Law School,” he said, adding, “Go Dawgs.”

It earned a broad smile from all three candidates—a rare moment of unity amidst the partisan fervor of election season.