Anti-abortion ‘heartbeat’ bill gains approval of Georgia House panel

State Rep. Ed Setzler has proposed legislation that would ban abortions after a heartbeat is detected in a fetus. Bob Andres/

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State Rep. Ed Setzler has proposed legislation that would ban abortions after a heartbeat is detected in a fetus. Bob Andres/

After hours of emotional debate, a state House panel voted Wednesday to advance legislation that would make abortion illegal as soon as a doctor can detect a heartbeat in a fetus. The bill, House Bill 481, now will be considered for debate on the House floor, where it would likely have to pass Thursday if it is to be approved this year by the Senate.

A heartbeat is usually detected in a woman’s sixth week of pregnancy. Current Georgia law allows abortions up to 20 weeks.

But what exactly is a heartbeat sparked rounds of heated discussion. A “heartbeat” detected at six weeks signals the practice motions of developing tissues that could not on their own power a fetus without the mother, doctors speaking against the proposal said.

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The heartbeat technicality was just one piece of many questions that roared through debate late in the day and left many attendees unsure what exact provisions had just passed. The one thing they knew is that Georgia’s abortion legislation was being pushed to be more restrictive.

The bill's sponsor, state Rep. Ed Setzler, told a House panel that the bill represented Georgians' beliefs.

“I believe in the common sense of Georgians,” Setzler said. “They recognize that science tells us a living, distinct whole human being with a heartbeat living in the womb is worthy of protection.”

A speaker representing Georgia’s fertility doctors said he hopes the bill won’t pass as is.

“This really is more about litigation than it was about patient care,” said John Walraven, who represents the group Georgia Reproductive Endocrinologists.

House Bill 546, a second anti-abortion measure with the backing of Gov. Brian Kemp, was tabled.

The packed committee room, which required House staff to livestream the hearing in another room, was filled with dozens of witnesses there to speak on both sides of the debate.

House Health and Human Services Chairwoman Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, opened the meeting with a request for speakers to maintain decorum whether they like what's being said or disagree. At one point she tried to call the vote but was unable to under the rules.

“Both sides of our aisle, Democrat or Republican, whether you agree with them or not, deserve to have their say,” Cooper said.

Witnesses included a young woman who said her parents had been advised to abort her with the advice that she would be severely disabled or have no chance at life. State Rep. Park Cannon of Atlanta told her colleagues she terminated a pregnancy that resulted from a rape because she feared the secondary traumas for queer people like her whose rapists believe their victims can be "raped straight."

Democrats delved into the concrete consequences to poorer rural women about the lack of reproductive care — half of Georgia’s counties lack an ob/gyn — and of criminalizing abortion. They noted that exceptions for rape and incest would depend on the victim being able to make a police report immediately. Republicans replied with the principle that life begins at conception and is precious.

One amendment that did make it came at the personal behest to the committee by Cooper, who asked members to “trust” her. Over the objections of witnesses, the committee voted to preserve the ability of women to abort fetuses that doctors say are incompatible with life.

Cooper presented the image of a woman carrying an anencephalic fetus, whose malformed head leaves brain tissue simply hanging in a sac. For some women, being forced to carry that baby through visible late-term pregnancy “would literally put them under psychiatric care,” Cooper said.

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