The Republican governor in the US state of Georgia on Tuesday signed legislation banning abortions once a foetal heartbeat can be detected. That can be as early as six weeks, before many women even know they are pregnant.
The signing by Governor Brian Kemp caps weeks of tension and protests at the state Capitol in Atlanta, and marks the beginning of what could be a lengthy and costly legal battle over the law’s constitutionality.
The legal showdown is exactly what supporters are looking for.
Anti-abortion rights activists and politicians across the country, energised by the new conservative majority on the US Supreme Court that includes President Donald Trump appointees Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, are pushing abortion bans in an attack on the high court’s 1973 Roe v Wade ruling, which legalised abortion nationwide until a foetus is developed enough to live outside a woman’s uterus.
Sean Young, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Georgia, said the group would challenge the state’s new abortion restriction in court.
“Under 50 years of Supreme Court precedent, this abortion ban is clearly unconstitutional,” Young said in a recent interview. “Every federal court that has heard a challenge to a similar ban has ruled that it’s unconstitutional.”
Under current law, women in Georgia can seek an abortion during the first 20 weeks of a pregnancy. If it’s not blocked in court, the new ban would take effect on January 1, 2020.
HB 481 makes exceptions in the case of rape and incest – if the woman files a police report first – and to save the life of the mother. It also would allow for abortions when a foetus is determined not to be viable because of serious medical issues.
The bill also deals with alimony, child support and even income tax deductions for foetuses, declaring that “the full value of a child begins at the point when a detectable human heartbeat exists.”
Republican state Representative Ed Setzler, the bill’s author, said in an interview after the bill passed the state House that it’s a “common-sense” measure that seeks to “balance the difficult circumstances women find themselves in with the basic right to life of a child”.
But Democratic state Senator Jen Jordan disagreed that the legislation was balanced. “There’s nothing balanced about it, it’s an all-out abortion ban,” Jordan said in a recent interview.
Jordan said she is especially worried that the new law will push obstetricians away from practicing in Georgia, worsening healthcare outcomes for women in a state that already has one of the worst maternal mortality rates in the country.
“It’s about the unintended consequences,” Jordan said. “They’re making policy choices that are going to end up causing women to die, and they’re preventable deaths.”
In the first few months of 2019, “heartbeat abortion” bans have been signed into law in four states: Mississippi, Kentucky, Ohio, and now Georgia. Politicians in a number of other states including Tennessee, Missouri, South Carolina, Florida, Texas, Louisiana and West Virginia are considering similar proposals. A bill that recently passed the Alabama House would outlaw abortions at any stage of pregnancy, with a few narrow exceptions.
Kentucky’s law was immediately challenged by the ACLU after it was signed in March, and a federal judge temporarily blocked it.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights, about 33,000 abortions were provided in Georgia in 2014.