ATLANTA (CN) — A Georgia law banning most abortions after doctors can detect a fetal heartbeat should be allowed to take effect, a unanimous panel of the 11th Circuit ruled Wednesday in a decision overturning a federal judge's determination that the law was unconstitutional.
Enforcement of the law means that most abortions will no longer be allowed in Georgia once fetal cardiac activity can be found, typically around six weeks of pregnancy and before most people know they are pregnant.
The law – known as the Living Infants Fairness and Equality, or LIFE, Act – includes exceptions in cases where the mother is the victim of rape or incest as long as a police report is filed. It also allows for later abortions in cases where the mother’s life is in danger or if the fetus is not viable due to a serious medical condition.
Originally passed in 2019, the LIFE Act was immediately challenged by abortion rights advocates and permanently blocked by a federal judge in 2020.
State officials appealed and the 11th Circuit decided in September that it would wait for the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in a Mississippi case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, before issuing a ruling.
The decision allowing the law to go into effect has been expected since the Supreme Court issued its June ruling in Dobbs, finding that there is no constitutional right to abortion and overturning Roe v. Wade.
A three-judge panel of the Atlanta-based appeals court ruled Wednesday that since the Dobbs decision established that abortion is not protected by any constitutional provision, laws attempting to regulate abortion should be upheld if there is a rational basis for the legislature’s belief that the regulation would serve “legitimate state interests.”
In a 16-page decision, U.S. Circuit Judge William Pryor wrote on behalf of the panel that preserving unborn life “at all stages of development” is “categorically a legitimate state interest.”
“Georgia’s prohibition on abortions after detectable human heartbeat is rational. ‘[R]espect for and preservation of prenatal life at all stages of development’ is a legitimate interest. The Georgia Legislature’s findings acknowledge a state interest in “providing full legal recognition to an unborn child.' That 'legitimate interest provide[s] a rational basis for' and 'justif[ies]' the Act,” wrote Pryor, a George W. Bush appointee, quoting the LIFE Act and the Dobbs decision. .
The panel also rejected arguments from abortion rights advocates that a “personhood” provision in the law is unconstitutionally vague.
The law extends personhood rights to fetuses once a heartbeat is detected, allowing parents to claim a fetus on their state income taxes as a dependent and file for child support.
"When focusing on the text, as we must, it is hard to see any vagueness," the ruling states. "The Act defines a natural person to include unborn humans in the womb at any stage of development. A person of reasonable intelligence is capable of understanding that the 'core meaning [of]' the provision is to expand the definition of person to include unborn humans who are carried in the womb of their mother at any stage of development."
Georgia's Republican Governor Brian Kemp celebrated the ruling in a statement Wednesday, saying the decision “affirms our promise to protect life at all stages.”
“We are overjoyed that the court has paved the way for the implementation of Georgia’s LIFE Act, and as mothers navigate pregnancy, birth, parenthood, or alternative options to parenthood – like adoption - Georgia’s public, private, and non-profit sectors stand ready to provide the resources they need to be safe, healthy, and informed,” Kemp said.
Attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, who sued to block the law on behalf of abortion providers and advocates, called the recent rulings on abortion “shameful” and “horrifying.”
“Once today’s court order takes effect, Gov. Kemp and his radical political allies will be able to force Georgians to carry pregnancies and give birth against their will, with profound medical risk and life-altering consequences,” said Julia Kaye, staff attorney, ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project. “We’ll continue using every tool at our disposal to fight for abortion access in Georgia and across the country so that everyone has the power to decide if and when to have a child.”
The decision does not mean that abortion is immediately banned in Georgia after six weeks. The case will be sent back to a lower federal court with instructions to reverse the earlier ruling blocking the law and enter judgment in favor of state officials.
In a statement, Planned Parenthood emphasized that abortion remains legal in Georgia for now.
“The 11th Circuit’s decision does not take effect until the court’s official mandate is issued, typically 28 days after an appellate court’s decision. Until then, abortion remains legal in Georgia up to 21 weeks and six days of pregnancy, as dated from a patient’s last menstrual period,” the statement says.
Pryor was joined on the panel by U.S. Circuit Judge Barbara Lagoa, a Donald Trump appointee, and Senior U.S. District Judge Harvey Schlesinger, a George H. W. Bush appointee sitting by designation from the Middle District of Florida.
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