Kwajelyn Jackson, third from left, the director of the Feminist Women’s Health Center, speaks during a press conference following a hearing Monday on a request seeking an injunction that would halt Georgia’s House Bill 481 from going into effect Jan. 1. The new law would ban abortions, in most cases, once fetal cardiac activity has been detected, about six weeks into a pregnancy and before many women know they are pregnant.(Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

Federal judge hears arguments to halt Georgia’s new anti-abortion law

A federal judge said Monday that he hoped to determine soon whether the court should block Georgia’s new anti-abortion law from going into effect, but he hinted at the potential long road ahead for the case.

It’s unclear when U.S. District Judge Steve C. Jones will rule on the request from the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia to halt the new law, which bans most abortions once a doctor can detect fetal cardiac activity.

Any ruling in the case would almost certainly be appealed.

“I recognize I’m not going to be the last word on this case,” Jones said.

The law is scheduled to go into effect Jan. 1. The ACLU has asked Jones to rule before then.

VIDEO: Abortion: A perpetual debate

Attorneys for the ACLU said the new law is essentially a ban on abortions, but lawyers for the state said the procedure still could be performed before cardiac activity is detected.

The new law could outlaw abortions as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, which is before many women know they are pregnant.

The legal arguments were similar to those made in other states that passed similar legislation this year, but they also focused on “personhood” language in the Georgia law, which extends legal rights to fertilized eggs.

Arguing for the ACLU, attorney Susan Talcott Camp said the law violates a woman’s constitutional right of access to abortion until about 24 weeks of pregnancy, as established by the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade.

“No state interest is strong enough to justify banning abortion before the point of viability,” Camp said. “A ban at any point before viability must fall.”

The ACLU is suing the state on behalf of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, the Feminist Women’s Health Center, Planned Parenthood Southeast and other abortion rights advocates and providers.

At least 15 states have considered versions of fetal cardiac legislation this year.

Governors in Kentucky, Mississippi and Ohio all have signed similar bills. Federal judges have already issued a preliminary injunction against laws in those states, and similar laws enacted in recent years in Iowa and North Dakota have also been struck down in the courts.

Jones questioned whether a district judge had the authority to overturn U.S. Supreme Court precedent.

Patrick Strawbridge, a private attorney representing the state, said he didn’t believe allowing the new law to go into effect would undermine previous court rulings.

“I don’t think the U.S. Supreme Court has answered this specific question,” Strawbridge said.

Jones asked attorneys on both sides of the argument whether they thought it was possible to keep the “personhood” pieces of the law intact while stopping the abortion ban from going into effect.

That language would allow parents, once a heartbeat is detected, to claim an embryo on their taxes as a dependent, and it would be counted toward the state’s population. A court can also order a father to pay child support after a heartbeat is detected.

Camp said the purpose of the law, House Bill 481, was to ban abortions and the “personhood” language was inserted only to “create a framework to justify banning abortion and therefore all of the provisions should be struck down.”

Strawbridge pushed back, saying establishing tax credits and allowing a mother to collect child support while still pregnant will benefit the parents of many of the more than 100,000 children born each year. He said each provision should be considered on its own.

“This is not window dressing,” he said. “The Legislature is putting its money where its mouth is.”

In Georgia, later abortions still are allowed in cases of rape, incest, if the life of the woman is in danger or in instances of “medical futility,” when a fetus would not be able to survive after birth. To obtain an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy because of rape or incest, a woman would have to file a police report.

Current Georgia law, passed by the Legislature in 2012, allows abortions through 20 weeks of pregnancy.

Georgia’s law is one of several that have moved through Republican-run state governments across the country with the express purpose of challenging Roe v. Wade.

Anti-abortion activists have seized upon the opportunity created after last year’s appointment of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, tilting the bench in the favor of conservatives.

There are already about 20 lawsuits involving abortion that the U.S. Supreme Court could consider that would challenge Roe v. Wade, but supporters of Georgia’s new law said they believe it is the one that will overturn the landmark ruling.

In a press conference after the hearing, Feminist Women’s Health Center Executive Director Kwajelyn Jackson stressed that the doors of her clinic and others in Georgia remain open.

“As medical service providers, we will continue to provide the abortion care that we have always provided,” she said. “We will continue to center our patients’ needs and will continue to work to make sure that they have not only the medical services that they deserve, but also all of the rights and recognitions that they need to thrive in Georgia.”

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