What is and isn’t allowed under Georgia’s abortion law?

Supporters and opponents of abortion rights hold signs during a February rally at the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Supporters and opponents of abortion rights hold signs during a February rally at the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

It’s been nearly a year since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and Georgia’s abortion law took effect.

Beginning in late July 2022, most abortions were banned in Georgia once a doctor could detect fetal cardiac activity, which is typically about six weeks into a pregnancy and before many know they are pregnant. Georgia’s law is different than most other states because it includes what is known as personhood, where rights are extended to an embryo or fetus — a change that has implications for state tax policy, population counts and even court orders.

Still, there’s a lot of confusion among Georgians about what is and isn’t legal.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is answering those questions. If there are other questions that you think need to be addressed, please email us at politics@ajc.com.

Abortion law

When is abortion legal? The 2019 law, which took effect in July 2022, bans abortion in most cases once a doctor can detect fetal cardiac activity, typically about six weeks into a pregnancy — or four weeks from conception — and before many women know they are pregnant. Obstetricians track pregnancy based on the last menstrual period, which is typically two weeks before conception.

Are there any exceptions? Yes. Georgia law allows women to get abortions after the detection of fetal cardiac activity and up until 22 weeks of pregnancy in cases of rape or incest. Victims would have to have reported the incident of rape or incest to the police to qualify for a later abortion.

Abortions also can be performed if the fetus has congenital or chromosomal defects and would not survive. In those instances, abortions past 22 weeks are legal.

Does the law ban abortions for ectopic pregnancies? No. An ectopic pregnancy occurs when a fertilized egg/embryo is implanted outside the womb, which is the normal site for implantation. The statute states that providing an abortion for the purpose of “removing an ectopic pregnancy” does not violate the law.

How does the law affect treatment for miscarriages? The statute states that removing a “dead unborn child” due to a miscarriage — or stillbirth — does not violate the law. However, some medical providers have said the law is unclear, causing them to wait until the mother’s health is at risk before treating a miscarriage.

What is the penalty for violating the abortion law? Georgia’s law did not change the penalties for what is called “criminal abortion.” Health care providers who are convicted of criminal abortion can face at least one and up to 10 years in prison. Providers could also lose their license to practice in Georgia.

Can patients be prosecuted for receiving a “criminal abortion”? It’s unclear. State officials say that the statute states that women cannot be prosecuted for receiving an abortion after the legal limit.

Opponents have said that under the personhood provision, which grants rights to an embryo or fetus once fetal cardiac activity can be detected, any harm done to an embryo or fetus could allow local prosecutors to charge women with a variety of offenses, such as child neglect if someone doesn’t get the proper prenatal care or homicide if they receive an abortion.

The attorney general’s office has declined to clarify the personhood provisions in the law.

What are the “affirmative defenses” in the law? Georgia also enacted a series of “affirmative defenses” available to medical providers or patients who end up facing abortion-related charges. An affirmative defense allows defendants to produce evidence that shows they are not criminally or civilly liable.

The law states that if physicians, nurses, pharmacists or physician assistants are charged with criminal abortion, they can prove that the treatment they provided caused the “accidental or unintentional injury to or death of an unborn child.”

Has the law led to fewer abortions in Georgia? Yes. Abortions in Georgia have fallen by nearly half. In the first seven months of 2022, before Georgia’s law took effect, an average of about 4,000 abortions were performed each month. Since the law took effect in late July 2022, abortions are being performed at an average of about 2,176 per month, according to a recent analysis of data from the Department of Public Health by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

However, it is possible that some of those people were able to travel to other states to receive an abortion. That information is not tracked by the state.

Has the law resulted in more children being born in Georgia? That is still to be determined. Those who were seeking abortions but were unable to get them once the law took effect — meaning they were about six weeks pregnant or more in July 2022 — and either decided to give birth or had to carry to term because they could not leave the state to have the procedure would likely have begun giving birth this past March. There is not enough data available to get a clear picture of any potential increase in births.


What does “personhood” mean for Georgia? The law made it so that an embryo or fetus is a “natural person” and is guaranteed rights. The state defines “natural person” as “any human being including an unborn child” and defines “unborn child” as “a member of the species Homo sapiens at any stage of development who is carried in the womb.”

What does that mean? An embryo or fetus is granted rights from the time the egg is fertilized.

What rights are specifically granted to a fetus or embryo in the law? The law states that once a zygote or embryo has detectable fetal cardiac activity, it is to be counted in the state’s population. The law directs the Department of Revenue to allow parents to claim an embryo or fetus that has detectable cardiac activity as a dependent on their taxes in the year the child was conceived. Unwed mothers are also allowed to petition fathers for financial support for direct medical and pregnancy-related expenses once fetal cardiac activity can be detected in an embryo or fetus.

What about embryos stored for in-vitro fertilization? Stored embryos, or fertilized eggs, are not granted personhood rights because the law specifies that the embryo has to be “in the womb.” Once it is implanted in the womb, it is granted rights.

Is IVF affected? Possibly. Some fertility doctors have raised concerns about their ability to use “fetal reduction” when providing care to mothers with several successfully implanted embryos. Doctors often place multiple embryos during IVF treatment to increase the possibility of a successful implantation. Sometimes doctors will terminate one or more of the additional embryos because it poses a risk to the lives of the mother and remaining embryos.

Submit your questions

Do you still have questions about what the law does? Submit them to politics@ajc.com and we will try to get them answered.