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Georgia passes 6-week “fetal heartbeat” bill that bans most abortions

It’s part of a nation-wide push on abortion restrictions.

Protesters on both sides of the abortion issue gather in front of the Supreme Court building during the Right To Life March, on January 18, 2019, in Washington, DC.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The Georgia House of Representatives approved a bill that would effectively ban most abortions in the state on Friday.

The bill, titled HB481, or the Living Infants Fairness and Equality (LIFE) Act, would bar women from terminating their pregnancies after a fetal heartbeat is first detected, which can be as early as around the six-week mark. At that point, many women aren’t even aware they are pregnant. If passed, this legislation would be one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the US and an affront to a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion.

Gov. Brian Kemp, a first-term Republican, is all but certain to sign the bill once the legislative session ends on Tuesday. Kemp released a statement after the bill passed the House on Friday, praising the legislature for daring to take such an aggressive step to limit abortions in the state.

“The legislature’s bold action reaffirms our priorities and who we are as a state,” Kemp tweeted Friday.

Rep. Ed Setzler, the Republican lawmaker who introduced the Georgia bill, argues along with his supporters that life begins the moment a heartbeat can be detected. Setzler’s bill further ingrains that mantra by allowing parents to claim their embryo as a dependent on their taxes and have it count toward state population statistics.

Opponents in the medical community, however, say the metric determining a heartbeat is at times dubious. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, doctors in Georgia argue that developing tissue of a fetus at six weeks may be mistaken as a heartbeat and that the fetus would not be able to survive outside of the mother’s womb.

Georgia currently has a restrictive ban on abortion in place that prevents women from undergoing the procedure after 20 weeks. This new bill dramatically reduces the window allowing women to seek an abortion, but still, there are some new exceptions. A woman may terminate her pregnancy in cases of a documented medical emergency, or if she is a victim of rape or incest. In the latter case, she must first file a police report before undergoing the procedure.

The measure passed the state Senate last week along party lines, but the House vote on Friday was much closer: State lawmakers approved the bill in a narrow 92-78 vote. The measure needed 91 votes in favor to pass.

Activists responded to the vote on Friday by dressing up in red robes and white bonnets in reference to the TV series The Handmaid’s Tale, which is based on a dystopian novel in which all child-bearing women in the US are enslaved. Police threatened to arrest several protesters as they yelled “shame” from the steps of the state capitol.

The bill also captured the attention of dozens of A-list celebrities. Gabrielle Union, Don Cheadle, and Amy Schumer were among the 40 Hollywood celebrities who signed a letter lobbying TV and film production companies to boycott the state in response to the new abortion restrictions.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Georgia has already vowed to take Georgia to court the moment the governor signs the bill. “If Gov. Kemp signs this abortion ban bill into law, the ACLU has one message: we will see you in court,” Andrea Young, the state’s executive director, said in a statement on Friday.

This bill is the latest in a nation-wide push for “fetal heartbeat” bills

The Georgia bill is part of a nationwide trend in conservative states trying to impose tight restrictions on abortion rights with the end goal of forcing the conservative-leaning bench of Supreme Court justices to decide on whether to uphold a woman’s constitutional right to seek an abortion. With the recent addition of Justice Brett Kavanaugh on the court, anti-abortion advocates see an opportunity to push legal challenges that will ultimately gut the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling that affirmed accessing abortion is a woman’s constitutional right in 1973. The Guttmacher Institute notes a 63 percent increase in the number of abortion restrictions introduced by state legislators this year alone.

An increasing number of those restrictions have come in the form of so-called “fetal-heartbeat” bills. The Georgia version comes on the heels of similar laws recently passing in both Kentucky and Mississippi. Neither have fully gone into effect yet, though, as civil rights and reproductive justice organizations are aggressively challenging those laws. Earlier this month, a federal judge blocked Kentucky’s version of a “fetal heartbeat bill” that also banned abortions near the six-week mark. Another federal judge struck down Mississippi’s 15-week ban on abortions last year, calling it unconstitutional.

Despite the consistent push back these bills have faced from federal courts, Republican lawmakers in states from Tennessee, Florida, South Carolina, and Ohio have their own versions of “fetal heartbeat” legislation in the works.

Challengers to the new Georgia abortion restriction may have some time to ensure the law never sees the light of day. Even if Kemp signs the bill, the law wouldn’t go into effect until January 1, 2020.