Federal judge throws out Georgia’s anti-abortion law

Monica Simpson, the executive director of SisterSong, speaks at a press conference in 2019. Christina Matacotta/christina.matacotta@ajc.com

Credit: Christina Matacotta for the AJC

Credit: Christina Matacotta for the AJC

Monica Simpson, the executive director of SisterSong, speaks at a press conference in 2019. Christina Matacotta/christina.matacotta@ajc.com

A federal judge on Monday struck down Georgia’s anti-abortion law approved by the General Assembly last year, calling it unconstitutional.

District Judge Steve C. Jones wrote in his ruling that the law — which would have outlawed most abortions once a doctor can detect fetal cardiac activity, or about six weeks into a pregnancy — violated a woman's constitutional right to access to the procedure as established by the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade.

“It is in the public interest, and is this court’s duty, to ensure constitutional rights are protected,” Jones wrote.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia sued the state on behalf of abortion advocates and providers. It argued that the law Gov. Brian Kemp signed last year, known as House Bill 481, was unconstitutional.

Jones agreed, writing that “the constitutional liberty of the woman to have some freedom to terminate her pregnancy” is inhibited by the law.

As a result of his ruling, Jones wrote, “the state of Georgia’s abortion laws that were in effect prior to the passage of H.B. 481 remain in effect.”

Under current Georgia law, passed by the Legislature in 2012, abortions are allowed through 20 weeks of gestation, or about 22 weeks of pregnancy.

Monica Simpson, the executive director of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective — the lead plaintiff in the case — lauded Jones’ decision.

“This win is tremendous, and it is also makes a very bold statement,” Simpson said. “No one should have to live in a world where their bodies and reproductive decision making is controlled by the state. And we will continue to work to make sure that is never a reality in Georgia or anywhere else.”

A spokeswoman for the Georgia Attorney General’s Office said the state would appeal the ruling.

Kemp said on Twitter, "Georgia is a state that values life and our fight to protect the innocent unborn is far from over."

Joshua Edmonds, the executive director of the anti-abortion Georgia Life Alliance, invoked the national discussion on racial justice that has occurred since the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery in Glynn County and George Floyd in Minnesota.

“In a time where our state is grappling with important conversations about innocent life unjustly taken, today’s ruling is a tragic and tone-deaf symbol that our culture still has much work to do to establish liberty and justice for all,” Edmonds said. “We will appeal this attempt to turn back the clock on human rights and continue to fight for a culture that protects life regardless of age, race, gender, or ability.”

But Sean J. Young, the legal director of the ACLU of Georgia, said the group brought the lawsuit because women should be able to make decisions about their own body.

“The district court blocked Georgia’s abortion ban because it violates over 50 years of Supreme Court precedent and fails to trust women to make their own personal decisions,” Young said.

Jones in October had temporarily blocked the law from going into effect while the case played out in court. It was set to take effect the first day of this year.

Jones also considered various so-called “personhood” provisions in the legislation, which extend legal rights to fertilized eggs.

The ACLU argued that the “personhood” components of the law were vague and made it difficult for its clients — abortion providers — to know when they are in violation.

The “personhood” language in the law would have allowed parents, once a fetal heartbeat is detected, to claim an embryo on their taxes as a dependent, and the embryo would be counted toward the state’s population. Under the law, a court could also have ordered a father to pay child support after a heartbeat is detected.

The Georgia ruling comes two weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision, struck down a Louisiana law that required abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals.

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

Last month's decision in the Louisiana case was a blow to anti-abortion activists, but supporters of Georgia's law have said they believe it is the one that will overturn Roe v. Wade.

Virginia Galloway, a lobbyist with the Georgia Faith and Freedom Coalition, said she believes an appeal will favor the measure passed last year.

“If they consider the Supreme Court’s comments, that if personhood were ever established, then that would invalidate the Roe vs. Wade decision,” Galloway said.

In Georgia, later abortions would still have been 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 had to first file a police report.

Read the ruling here: