Few abortions performed under Georgia’s legal exceptions

Saturday is one year since U.S. Supreme Court overturned longtime abortion ruling
(EDNOTE: THE STAFF DOES NOT WANT TO BE IDENTIFIED. - HS) June 29, 2022 Atlanta - A clinic staff prepares for a patient at an examination room at Feminist Women's Health Center on Wednesday, June 29, 2022.(Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)



(EDNOTE: THE STAFF DOES NOT WANT TO BE IDENTIFIED. - HS) June 29, 2022 Atlanta - A clinic staff prepares for a patient at an examination room at Feminist Women's Health Center on Wednesday, June 29, 2022.(Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Since Georgia’s restrictive abortion law took effect last July, less than 1% of the more than 25,000 abortions that have been performed here were done under the exceptions outlined in state law.

It’s been a year since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, paving the way for Georgia’s abortion law to take effect a few weeks later. Georgia law bans most abortions once a doctor can detect fetal cardiac activity, which experts have said is often about six weeks into a pregnancy and before many know they are pregnant.

Later abortions are allowed if the pregnancy falls under one of four exemptions outlined by state law — to save the life of the patient, if the fetus would not survive, or if the patient was a victim of rape or incest and filed a police report.

Data from the Georgia Department of Public Health showed that between July 24, 2022, and June 6, 199 abortions have been performed after a doctor could detect fetal cardiac activity. Providers reported performing 122 abortions in Georgia under one of the state’s exceptions.

The DPH provided the information to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in response to an open records request.

That’s less than 0.5% of the 25,237 abortions performed since the law took effect.

The most common exception cited was “medical emergency” to save the life of the mother. According to DPH data, providers performed 69 abortions after detecting fetal cardiac activity citing a medical emergency of the mother, 34 abortions citing rape and 19 abortions were done because the fetus would not have survived. There were no reported instances of incest.

Cole Muzio, who runs the conservative Norcross-based Frontline Policy Action group and lobbied lawmakers to pass the 2019 law, said the purpose of including the exceptions was to provide options in a “very small number of tragic cases.”

“The exceptions are minimal but broadly supported,” he said. “And it’s one of the reasons this law was so intensely debated and carefully crafted.”

Not a ‘six-week ban’

Obstetricians track pregnancy based on the last menstrual period, which is typically two weeks before a woman is most fertile and likely to conceive. Determining the date of conception is not an exact science, so doctors use markers such as the last menstrual period until later in gestation when fetus development can provide other clues.

That means that when doctors say that someone is “six weeks pregnant,” the conception may have occurred four weeks prior.

Medical professionals performed 10 abortions where fetal cardiac activity was detected prior to six weeks of pregnancy, according to DPH data.

The DPH does not track how many times a doctor detected fetal cardiac activity earlier than six weeks of pregnancy, whether the mother was seeking an abortion or not, and if the pregnancy continued.

It’s because of instances like the 10 early abortions reported to the state that Vivienne Kerley-de la Cruz, Georgia state and campaigns director for Planned Parenthood Southeast, said abortion rights advocates have tried to push back when people call Georgia’s law a “six-week ban.”

“It is not actually a six-week ban,” she said. “It is when fetal heart tones are detectable. That can happen for folks before six weeks, and it can happen after six weeks. And even at six weeks, most folks don’t know that they’re pregnant. So it really is an incredibly small window.”

Three abortions were performed on women four weeks after their last period, which would have likely been about two weeks after conception. An additional seven were performed on women five weeks after their last period, or about three weeks after conception. Twenty-five abortions were performed when the mother was six weeks pregnant and fetal cardiac activity had been detected.

Muzio said the purpose of the law was to protect the unborn, and the law is doing just that.

“It’s a ‘heartbeat bill,’ it’s not a ‘six-week bill.’ This law is to protect babies with beating hearts and whenever that beating heart is detected — if that’s what doctors use to determine the end of life, it should be used to determine when life begins,” he said.

Muzio said while he believes life begins at conception, he thinks Georgia’s abortion law strikes a balance.

Providers reported performing 77 abortions where no exception was cited due to changes to the enforcement of the law or lack of a reporting mechanism.

In November, a Fulton County Superior Court judge threw out the state law, allowing abortions past the detection of fetal cardiac activity to resume. About a week later, the state Supreme Court said the law should be in effect throughout the court process. Medical providers performed 73 abortions after the detection of fetal cardiac activity during that time, when it was not required to cite an exception.

An additional four abortions were performed after the detection of fetal cardiac activity in the immediate days after the law took effect last year, when the DPH did not yet have a mechanism in place to capture that piece of data.

Abortions overall have dropped by nearly half since Georgia’s law took effect, and abortions after six weeks of pregnancy have all but ended.

Georgia’s abortion law remains a matter for the courts, including a challenge in the state Supreme Court.

Justices will soon decide whether the law should remain in effect — or if, as attorneys for abortion providers argue, it was illegal from the start because Roe v. Wade, which guaranteed the constitutional right to an abortion, was the law of the land in 2019 when the state law was passed. Those attorneys say state law does not allow the Legislature to enact statutes that violate federal law.