After nearly a half-century with the federal right to an abortion, it was the first full day most abortions sought were illegal in the state.
A federal appeals court ruling allowed Georgia’s restrictive “heartbeat” abortion law to take effect Wednesday, nearly a month after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. The 2019 Georgia law that had been held up in court now bans abortion in most cases after a doctor detects fetal cardiac activity, which is usually about six weeks into a pregnancy — and before many women and teenagers know they are pregnant. Before, Georgia allowed abortions up to 22 weeks into a pregnancy.
Staff at abortion clinics throughout Georgia described a chaotic day, which manifested in confusion about which facilities were open.
“Nobody is happy here today,” said Megan Gordon, public affairs manager for Feminist Women’s Health Center in Brookhaven. “Everybody is stressed, everybody is worried about having to turn patients away today.”
Gordon said metro Atlanta has long been a Southern hub for abortions, but said it was a frenzy Thursday as staff made dozens of calls to cancel abortion appointments.
Clinic staff scrambled to adjust to a new regulatory world. Gordon said their medical director spent the night rewriting clinic forms to include a mention of a heartbeat, staff had to print up the copies and managers had to ensure that ultrasound technicians knew the new law.
“That’s what happens when laws go into effect immediately, we have no time to suddenly get into compliance. It’s certainly not just,” Gordon said. “It’s chaotic.”
Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporters visited a half-dozen sites Thursday and left phone messages at about a dozen abortion clinics only to be told no one was available to talk. A staff member at one clinic wrote a hotline phone number on an orange sticky note that led to a seven-minute wait on the phone before the call disconnected.
Gordon said callers have asked if they face prosecution for traveling to Georgia for an abortion from a state that outlaws the procedure even earlier than when cardiac activity is detected.
“We had to tell them we didn’t know. The legal situation is changing so fast. So many state legislatures are being increasingly creative and extreme to make it completely impossible to access abortion,” she said.
Lauren Frazier, director of communications at Planned Parenthood Southeast, said the organization hired a patient navigator in March to help those seeking abortions find care in other states.
Planned Parenthood staff spent Thursday calling people pregnant for seven weeks or longer according to their initial ultrasound to give the bad news that they would have to look elsewhere. That’s when the navigator steps in to connect patients with resources in other states, like North Carolina and Florida, along with money to travel and stay there for a procedure.
“To add this additional layer of making reproductive health care even more inaccessible, those barriers to care obviously fall disproportionally on women of color and young people and LGBTQ+ communities. This is a really devastating time for a lot of folks,” Frazier said.
Frazier didn’t have exact numbers on how many patients they had to send away from Planned Parenthood’s multiple Georgia locations.
But staff at A Preferred Women’s Health Center locations in Augusta and Forest Park turned away about 70% of the patients who checked in for an abortion Thursday, said APWHC executive director Calla Hales.
APHWC and Planned Parenthood, along with the Brookhaven clinic and Carafem, all assured that they will remain open for patients seeking abortions while complying with the law.
Exceptions to the six-week law include rape, incest, if the life of the woman is in danger, or instances of medical futility, when a fetus would not be able to survive after birth.
Still, there was little clarity Thursday.
Individuals seeking care at Atlanta Women’s Center, an abortion clinic that has been open since 1977, would have met an empty parking lot, a dark building and a voicemail box Thursday morning.
The center posted an announcement on Facebook around 10:30 a.m. saying it paused all operations while staff consults with a legal team, citing the “horrifying ruling” issued by the courts. The since-deleted post was replaced with a new announcement that does not say for sure whether the center is open, instead stressing the center’s commitment “to assisting our patients in identifying and traveling to clinics that care provide the care they need.”
People who are pregnant and researching their next steps have the option to call abortion hotlines, including the National Abortion Federation (NAF) Hotline.
One Georgia NAF Hotline representative said they’ve been getting “more calls than normal.”
“It seems like a lot of people are surprised and sad and devastated,” the representative said. “Then when they don’t know (about the law), but they call us, then they feel hopeless.”
Donovan J. Thomas and Alia Malik contributed to this story.