Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp pledged during his campaign last year that he would pass the nation’s strictest abortion limits. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Georgia governor backs bill to ban abortion if Roe v. Wade is nixed

Gov. Brian Kemp wants Georgia lawmakers to pass a “trigger law” that would ban almost all abortions in the state if the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision is overturned.

The Republican’s endorsement of the measure opens a new front over cultural legislation at the Georgia Statehouse and stoked fierce opposition from Democrats and abortion rights advocates. But it was feted by some conservatives who have long demanded new abortion restrictions -- and are eager to hold Kemp to his promise to pass the nation’s strictest abortion limits.

The legislation, introduced Thursday in the Georgia House by Kemp’s allies at his behest, would punish anyone who performs abortions with up to 10 years in prison and a fine of as much as $100,000. It would carve out exceptions in cases of rape, incest, medical emergencies and medical futility.

If it passes, the new limits would only take effect if two other things happened first: The U.S. Supreme Court would have to overrule the central holding in the landmark 1973 ruling, which established a nationwide right to abortion. Then, the General Assembly would have to pass a joint resolution signed by the governor.

Kemp said he supports the measure because it would “protect the innocent and most vulnerable” at a time when some liberal politicians are advocating for looser abortion restrictions.

“Our state values life — from conception to natural death,” Kemp said in a statement. “This legislation reflects our calling to protect the unborn and our desire to ensure opportunity for all.”

Five states have adopted similar measures to pre-emptively outlaw abortion if Roe v. Wade is overturned: Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota and South Dakota. Four other Republican-led states are considering similar measures.

The Georgia version would allow several exceptions to the abortion ban, including in the case of a pregnancy that’s deemed to be medically futile – which is defined as an unborn child with a profound and incurable medical condition that “is incompatible with sustaining life after birth.” 

It also includes a provision that would explicitly allow the sale of contraceptives.

It’s bound to face vehement opposition from Democrats and abortion rights supporters, who have roundly criticized a measure introduced earlier this week that would ban abortions once a doctor can detect a heartbeat in the womb. State law now allows abortions up to 20 weeks into pregnancy.

And it could face blowback from conservatives who want the state to take a more concrete step. 

Virginia Galloway of the Faith and Freedom Coalition of Georgia said she prefers legislation that bans abortions once a heartbeat is detected, which could be as early as six weeks’ gestation. 

“I’m excited to see them making a move in a sense, but, again, is Roe v. Wade going to be overturned? Nobody really knows that,” she said. “That seems to be the expectation that’s out there. I’m not sure that it will ever really happen.”

Still, she added, a “trigger law” is a step in the right direction. 

“It’s nice to have a governor that’s doing something, for a change, on pro-life issues,” Galloway said.

Abortion rights groups quickly began mustering opposition to the bill. 

Invoking Georgia’s high maternal mortality rate, Staci Fox of Planned Parenthood Southeast said such a law could restrict access to health care “in a way that will surely be a death sentence for even more women.” 

“Lawmakers should be focused on expanding access to health care across Georgia,” she said, “not restricting it.”

The surge of interest in such laws comes as abortion opponents see a renewed potential to overturn the 1973 ruling after President Donald Trump’s appointment of Justice Brett Kavanaugh last year gave conservatives the edge in the Supreme Court. More than a dozen cases involving abortion could soon land before the justices.

Kemp, the former secretary of state, courted conservatives during last year’s crowded Republican primary with pledges to sign a version of “religious liberty” legislation, crack down on illegal immigration, expand gun rights and restrict abortions.

Until Thursday, though, his legislative agenda focused largely on campaign promises that appealed to a broader electorate, including a pledge to hike teacher pay and target gang violence.

Staff writer Maya T. Prabhu contributed to this article.

Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at ajc.com/news/georgia-government/.

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