The state House, after emotional debate, passed a bill Wednesday that would cut six weeks from the time women can have elective abortion.
The legislation, House Bill 954, also would tighten medical exemptions for terminating pregnancies and require any abortion performed after 20 weeks of pregnancy be done in a way to bring the fetus out alive. The measure is commonly referred to as a "fetal pain" bill and says that a fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks, therefore the state has an interest in protecting it.
Supporters said the bill, if passed by the Senate and signed by the governor, will save lives and protect fetuses.
Opponents said the bill would legislate decisions that should be made by doctors, that it would force women to carry to term fetuses that will be stillborn because of medical problems and would put doctors at risk who work with difficult pregnancies. Doctors who are involved in abortions after 20 weeks that do not meet the bill's restrictions could be charged with a felony and face up to 10 years in prison.
Rep. Doug McKillip, R-Athens, the bill's primary sponsor, said the legislation would "save 1,000 to 1,500 lives."
He quoted numbers from the state Department of Community Health that showed that during recent reporting periods, between 568 and 1,541 abortions a year were done in Georgia after 20 weeks of pregnancy. The numbers were not clear on whether the abortions were spontaneous, medically necessary or elective.
Dr. Ruth Cline, an obstetrician from Athens, said "the language of the bill has clauses of limited exceptions, but this interpretation can require days, months or years of legal review."
"This is not a realistic option when caring for a patient when every minute is critical for optimal care," Cline said. "No physician could afford to risk that his or her care would be examined after the fact to confirm that the law had been followed if criminal penalties were a probability."
"It is time for the government to get out of my examination room and my office," Cline said. "If you legislators want to practice medicine, go to medical school!"
The debate was filled with personal stories about premature children or mothers who considered abortion but elected to have the child, as well as cases of horrible crimes, such as incest, where the pregnancy was not discovered until after 20 weeks. The bill does not make exceptions for those types of cases.
Rep. Kathy Ashe, D-Atlanta, asked her fellow legislators to send the bill back to at least make that exception, but the bill's supporters just as vehemently opposed any delay.
The bill passed 102- 65, closely along party lines.
House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, said opponents hope to influence the bill as it crosses to the Senate. She said they will seek exceptions for pregnancies where the fetuses are not medically viable.
Abrams also wants to extend the period for elective abortion to 24 weeks, saying that many medical conditions are not known until at least then.
McKillip said he will continue to help shepherd the bill as it goes to the Senate for consideration.
"Some folks are against the bill," he said, "and I'm sure they will try to make their points again."
McKillip was a Democrat before switching parties in the fall. He had supported an abortion rights agenda in the past.
"I'm glad to correct that vote today," he said.