Georgia governor backs ‘heartbeat bill’ to restrict abortions

Kemp: ‘There will no doubt be a legal battle. And we’re ready for a fight’

Gov. Brian Kemp put his unequivocal support behind a measure that would ban abortion as soon as a doctor can detect a heartbeat, setting the stage for a showdown in the Georgia House over new restrictions.

Kemp said Thursday in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the bill would help preserve the sanctity of life and uphold campaign promises that he and other Republicans made to restrict abortions.

“I campaigned on signing the toughest abortion bill in the country,” he said, “and this is the toughest one we’ve got in the Legislature now.”

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And Kemp said his administration was ready for an inevitable court fight over the legislation if it becomes law.

“There will no doubt be a legal battle. And we’re ready for a fight,” the Republican said. “I have no ill will for people who oppose this, and I understand it. But this is about protecting life, and we’re willing to fight for it.”

The "heartbeat" bill, authored by state Rep. Ed Setzler, was approved by a House committee Wednesday on a party-line vote after hours of tense, emotional testimony. The same panel tabled Kemp's other abortion-related priority, the "trigger law" bill.

That measure, which Kemp publicly backed last week, would restrict most abortions if the U.S. Supreme Court outlaws it. He said Thursday that he decided not to pursue that effort when it looked like Setzler's legislation could move forward.

The heartbeat measure, House Bill 481, would outlaw abortion as soon as a doctor can detect a heartbeat in a fetus. Doctors say a heartbeat is typically detected when a fetus reaches six weeks gestation. Current Georgia law allows abortions up to 20 weeks.

Democrats are rallying against it, promising a drawn-out legal battle if it passes -- much like the backlash over a similar law in Iowa that a judge recently declared unconstitutional.

And some are passing out hangers to Republican lawmakers, an infamous symbol of self-induced abortions – a step they warn these new restrictions could force women to take.

State Rep. Dar'shun Kendrick, a Democrat from Lithonia, called it "wasteful spending of taxpayer money."

“We could invest that in our election system or Medicaid expansion,” she said, “but, instead, we are playing political games with women’s health and reproductive organs.”

Conservatives have made the heartbeat measure a leading priority, casting other pending efforts to restrict abortions as half-measures. Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan added his voice to the effort, too, calling it an “easy decision for me.”

“I, of course, will support legislation that protects unborn children with heartbeats,” said Duncan, a first-term Republican.

House Speaker David Ralston's stance is not immediately clear.

After a wave of Republican defeats last year in Atlanta's suburbs, Ralston said he wanted to do more to insulate vulnerable House GOP incumbents who could face backlash for votes on social issues. But he's also been a supporter of more abortion restrictions.

Kemp said he recognizes that this measure is a particularly tough vote for some Republicans in competitive districts, particularly in Atlanta’s fast-changing suburbs. He urged those lawmakers “to vote how they feel best.”

“I don’t think they need to run from what they believe in,” Kemp said. “If they don’t believe this, I understand. But if they do, they need to embrace it.”

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