Opinion: Recognize limits of state law

The Supreme Court of the United States in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

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The Supreme Court of the United States in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

In their efforts to curtail abortions here, the Gold Dome should recognize federal law — not Georgia’s — will ultimately decide the issue.

A decade ago now, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ceased our Opinion page editorializing on partisan political issues, such as endorsing candidates. We do, however, still offer this Editorial Board’s opinion on critical issues that stand to significantly impact Georgia, its residents and our shared future that we believe transcends party lines.

The so-called “heartbeat” bill now being favorably channeled through the Georgia General Assembly handily fits this criteria, we believe. House Bill 481, formally called the Living Infants Fairness and Equality (LIFE) Act, represents the strongly held and sincerely believed sentiments of abortion opponents.

Our purpose here is not to attack this belief. Nor do we write today in support of those who support continued access to abortion services.

The issue before Georgia now represents a microcosm of the national debate over abortion that predates even the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling.

We mention the national landscape and America’s highest court for a deliberate reason. And that is because the federal courts, in reality, will be where the nation’s next decisive chapter of the abortion struggle will be written. Which is altogether proper given this is an issue that encompasses the entirety of America.

Georgia will not be the final arbiter on abortion – if there ever is one. Given that the passion around this issue has shown no sign of lessening across the decades, we suspect this debate will outlive anyone reading this editorial today.

Since the next landmark volume of legal history around abortion will not be written in Georgia, we believe that HB 481 does not serve a constructive purpose for this state and its residents. For that reason, we believe it should not pass into law and should not be signed by Gov. Brian Kemp.

Passing HB 481 into law is likely to result in lawsuits that would be expensive to fight, with legal fees perhaps reaching into millions of dollars. That alone should give pause to a fiscally conservative legislature.

Again, our point is not to side with abortion proponents. Rather, it is simply to try and unentangle Georgia from a matter that will ultimately be decided at the federal level – and not at the Gold Dome.

In concept and intent, HB 481, if enacted, would be one of the strictest anti-abortion measures in the nation. It would prohibit nearly all abortions at the point that a fetal “heartbeat” is detected – sometimes as early as six weeks after conception. In reality, many women – and they are the ones who would know – are unaware they’re even pregnant at that point. Current Georgia law permits abortions up to 20 weeks after conception, although even the case establishing that time stamp is still making its way through the legal system.

In addition, the bill would confer status on an embryo as a “natural person” with “full legal recognition” under Georgia law at the point when a heartbeat can be detected. That’s expected to result in parents being able to claim embryos as dependents under state income tax law. They would also be somehow counted under state – but not federal – censuses.

If you’re beginning to wonder if HB 481 could conflict with federal law, you’d likely be correct.

HB 481 has predictably pitted abortion opponents against abortion-rights supporters. Both are passionate about their positions. Given the way the bill is written, even an influential state physicians’ group has expressed concerns about the potential legal liability it could pose for medical professionals performing abortions. This in a state which has far too few OB-Gyn’s already.

The Georgia bill, if signed into law, would stand alongside similar legislation that’s emerged in other states, including several other “heartbeat” bills.

Abortion foes – including those in Georgia — are hopeful that the U.S. Supreme Court will use these efforts as the basis for eventually overturning Roe v. Wade. There are currently about 20 lawsuits dealing with abortion that are pending consideration by the nation’s high court.

The appropriate time for abortion-related lawmaking in Georgia will be after the next landmark decision — not before, we believe. At that point, Georgia may well need to change state law to comport with future rulings.

Which brings us back to our core point. The legal entity that is HB 481 amounts to a very costly way for Georgia to assert a belief that the federal courts should eventually outlaw abortion. This principle is widely – but far from universally – held here.

And, in the end, the Gold Dome’s lawmakers won’t have the decisive say for the reasons outlined above. For that reason, lawmakers should drop HB 481 and leave the matter to the federal judiciary.

Read other views on HB 481 by clicking on the links below

>> Opinion: Scientists oppose six-week abortion ban in 'hearbeat' bill

>> Opinion: Ga.'s HB 481 will protect mothers, unborn children 

The Editorial Board.