OPINION: The many unknowns of Georgia’s new abortion law

Protesters participating in a student-led, nonpartisan demonstration supporting reproductive freedoms listen to the speakers at  Alpharetta City Hall on Saturday, July 2, 2022. (Photo: Steve Schaefer / steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Protesters participating in a student-led, nonpartisan demonstration supporting reproductive freedoms listen to the speakers at Alpharetta City Hall on Saturday, July 2, 2022. (Photo: Steve Schaefer / steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

The most striking part about asking Georgia leaders about the state’s new restrictive abortion law is how little people seem to know about what happens next.

The main contours of the bill are well enough known by now. It bans abortion after fetal cardiac activity is detected on an ultrasound. For most women, that is between five and eight weeks of pregnancy, so early in the process that many won’t realize they’re pregnant until they hear that sound in a doctor’s office.

That pounding rhythm brings elation to most women, but not to all. Complications later can make a pregnancy dangerous or deadly. The only ones who will have the option to seek an abortion will be the ones who fall into the narrow exceptions House Bill 481 provides.

Girls and women who have been molested by a family member or raped can seek an abortion up to 20 weeks, but only if they also produce a police report about the incident.

Other exceptions include girls and women with ectopic pregnancies, pregnancies when a woman’s permanent health or life is in danger; and pregnancies that are deemed “medically futile,” a crucial detail GOP state Rep. Sharon Cooper added to the bill before she voted against it.

The law also declared that “human personhood” begins at the time of a fetal heartbeat, complete with all the rights associated with that, including being counted for the census.

But get into the weeds of what all this means, the same weeds where real life so often unfolds, and the most frequent responses I got to specific questions were “I don’t know,” “Let me check,” “That’s a good question” or “No one’s ever asked that.”

For example, now that a fetus is a person, is that fetus a U.S. citizen if its heartbeat developed on American soil?

Also, is human trafficking considered rape for the purposes of the new law? Republicans have toughened laws against trafficking. But they couldn’t say whether Georgia law specifies that girls and women involved in trafficking are technically rape victims and thus allowed to seek an abortion if they somehow manage to escape and file a police report to take to a doctor.

House Speaker David Ralston’s office referred me to Attorney General Chris Carr’s office for an answer now that the bill is law. But a spokeswoman for Carr said that while rape is an exception, “Any interpretation of the law falls within the judicial branch and any modification to the LIFE Act would be at the discretion of the legislative branch.”

And the usually outspoken author of the law, state Rep. Ed Setzler, didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

In other words, the people in charge don’t know or aren’t saying.

Practically, there is also a laundry list of questions families should consider now that the law is in effect — hypotheticals that you probably never think you’ll deal with until the moment you’re faced with a crisis. And make no mistake that any girl or woman considering an abortion is in crisis.

For example, will you encourage your teenage daughter to file a police report against her boyfriend for statutory rape if she becomes pregnant? Rape is an exception in the law, but only if the police have been notified.

If your son is sexually active, have you told him he could now be in danger of heading to jail in Georgia, too? Statutory rape, which would have to be reported to police if the girl seeks an abortion after the early window, is punishable by one to 20 years in prison.

Also, will you let your friends travel to Georgia if they’re pregnant? Even with serious, unexpected complications, OB-GYNs say they don’t know where to draw the line between what’s legal and what will endanger their own careers or potentially send them to jail.

A particularly striking portion of the bill is the language that explicitly says a girl’s or woman’s mental health cannot be considered as a danger to the health or life of the mother, even if she’s suicidal.

Are we prepared to watch suicidal girls and women carry pregnancies to term or kill themselves? The General Assembly specified that will be the choice.

I say “girls and women” because the average age for girls to start puberty is between 8 and 13, with some even earlier. That doesn’t mean they will get pregnant, but it does mean they can, and this law applies to them, too.

Not all members of the Legislature voted for the law, and not even all Republicans did. Two of the closest watched voices were women’s — state Sen. Kay Kilpatrick, an orthopedic surgeon, and Sharon Cooper, a retired nurse practitioner who chairs the House Health and Human Services Committee.

Kirkpatrick missed the vote because she was at a funeral, but she made it known she would have voted no anyway. “I just had concerns about the criminalization of the physicians in light of the shortage of OB-GYNs that we have in our state,” she told The Marietta Daily Journal at the time. She asked her colleagues to make several changes to the bill and they would not.

Cooper said the bill had “many, many flaws,” including the fact that it was “blatantly unconstitutional.” Although the Dobbs decision has changed what “constitutional” means at the federal level, we’ve yet to see what a state court will say about the privacy protections in the Georgia Constitution.

The members who did vote yes were almost all men and mostly not doctors.

Rep. Setzler, who sponsored the bill, is an engineer and project manager when he’s not at the Capitol. State Sen. Bruce Thompson, who sponsored a separate bill this year to require girls and women to make two visits to a doctor to access abortion medication, is an insurance salesman and fitness enthusiast. The others were a collection of farmers, lawyers, car salesmen and an oil company heir.

Will Georgia voters reward them for taking all these decisions away from girls and women in Georgia, and making it themselves? Or will voters punish the lawmakers who voted for a law that few understood when it passed and even fewer seem to understand today as it’s put into effect?

That’s the one answer we know we’ll have by November.