When Gov. Brian Kemp signed one of the nation’s strictest anti-abortion bills into law on Tuesday, he made good on a campaign promise but also set the stage for a legal battle that the legislation’s critics hope will spill over to the polls in 2020.
Supporters filled a ceremonial room in Kemp’s office and applauded House Bill 481, which outlaws most abortions once a doctor can detect a fetus’ “heartbeat” — usually about six weeks into a pregnancy and before many women know they’re pregnant.
Meanwhile, opponents of the new law promised to file a lawsuit to keep the ban from going into effect, and groups such as Planned Parenthood announced plans to raise money to oust legislators who supported the measure.
Georgia’s law is one of several moving through Republican-run state governments across the country with the express purpose of challenging the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 that guaranteed a woman’s right to an abortion until a fetus is “viable” — up until about 24 weeks of pregnancy. Georgia passed legislation in 2012 that banned abortions after 20 weeks.
At least 15 states, ranging from Maryland to Texas, are considering versions of “heartbeat” legislation in 2019.
Governors in Kentucky, Mississippi and Ohio all have signed similar “heartbeat bills.” A federal judge has already issued a preliminary injunction against the Kentucky law, and similar laws enacted in recent years in Iowa and North Dakota have also been struck down in the courts.
Alabama is considering an even stricter bill that would make it a felony to perform abortions in almost all cases. Abortions could be performed only if the woman’s life is at risk.
In signing the bill in Georgia, Kemp kept a promise he made during his 2018 campaign.
“All life has value, all life matters and all life is worthy of protection,” Kemp said. “I’m signing this bill to ensure all Georgians have the opportunity to live, grow, learn and prosper in the great state of Georgia.”
The law is scheduled to go into effect in January unless it is blocked by the courts. The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia has vowed to sue the state over the new law.
In a press conference held on the Capitol steps shortly after Kemp signed the bill, the ACLU and other opponents of the law said the Athens Republican solidified his fate as a “one-term governor.”
“The governor has signed an unconstitutional abortion ban, a Frankenstein bill — a bill cobbled together with disparate parts derived from ideology, not science,” said Andrea Young, the executive director of the ACLU of Georgia. “(It’s) a bill that explicitly undermines women’s health care in Georgia.”
Though Kemp’s ceremonial office was full, the day drew far smaller crowds — on both sides of the issue — and a much smaller police presence than last month, when the measure won approval from the General Assembly. During the height of the debate, hundreds of people filled the Capitol to lobby lawmakers to vote their way, and nearly as many police officers patrolled the Statehouse grounds.
Democrats and opponents of the law also have vowed to take their energy to the polls next year, planning to challenge the Republican legislators who supported HB 481.
“We’re putting lawmakers on notice: Your votes are far outside the mainstream, and we will now spend our time and energy launching a campaign to replace you,” said Staci Fox, the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Southeast. “That work begins now.”
Some in the entertainment industry — including the Writers Guild of America and more than 40 celebrities — threatened to boycott the state if Kemp signed the bill. The governor brushed off the threat, saying he doesn’t base how he runs the state on what Hollywood thinks about legislation.
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll conducted last month found that about 49% of Georgia voters surveyed oppose the bill, with about 44% saying they support it.
Each state pursuing “heartbeat” legislation has taken a slightly different approach.
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 because of rape or incest, a woman would have to file a police report.
The anti-abortion organization Save the 1 said allowing exceptions to the abortion ban was discriminatory because it valued certain fetuses over others. The group has also vowed to sue the state.
The Georgia law includes what many supporters call “personhood” language, which would extend legal rights to fertilized eggs.
It allows 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.
State Sen. Renee Unterman, a Duluth Republican who ushered the legislation through the Senate, called the new law the “pinnacle of her legislative career.”
Unterman told the story of having a hysterectomy when she was in her 20s.
“I adopted two children and only by the courageous abilities of those birth mothers to give up those children,” she said. “That was my journey that started me on being so pro-life.”
The law exposes a woman to criminal prosecution for getting an abortion, as well as the doctor who performs the procedure, the nurse who assists and a pharmacist who prescribes medication that terminates a pregnancy. It grants exceptions to situations where the health or livelihood of the woman is at stake and for “the accidental or unintentional injury to or death of an unborn child.”
What defines a heartbeat is at the center of dispute.
Supporters say it should be used to establish when life begins.
“If you look at a child in the womb with a beating heart and a distinct blood type and you ask a schoolchild what that is, they know,” said Acworth Republican state Rep. Ed Setzler, the bill’s sponsor. “They say, ‘That’s a baby.’ ”
Doctors who oppose the law, however, said what appears to be a heartbeat at six weeks signals the practice motions of developing tissues that could not on their own power a fetus without the mother.
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.
Defending the state’s law will be costly.
For example, Louisiana spent more than $1 million on private attorneys defending a 2014 anti-abortion law that attempts to require doctors who perform the procedure to have admitting rights at a nearby hospital.
That amount could balloon quickly after a federal judge ruled in 2017 that requiring admitting privileges was unconstitutional. Lawyers for a clinic that performs abortions have asked for $4.7 million to pay for legal fees. Louisiana is appealing the 2017 ruling.
With Georgia’s law not going into effect until January, it’s unclear when state groups will file their lawsuits. But they say they are coming.
“We will see Governor Kemp in court,” Young said.