Federal Judge Blocks Georgia Fetal-Heartbeat Abortion Law

Georgia members of the Handmaid Coalition protest the passage of HB 481 outside the Capitol on March 8, 2019, in Atlanta. (Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

ATLANTA (CN) — A federal judge on Tuesday temporarily blocked enforcement of Georgia’s restrictive anti-abortion law that makes it nearly impossible for women to get an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy.

U.S. District Judge Steve C. Jones ruled that House Bill 481, also known as the Living Infants Fairness and Equality (LIFE) Act, will not take effect while litigation challenging the law makes its way through court.

The law, which was passed by Georgia’s Republican-controlled House in March and signed by Republican Governor Brian Kemp in May, bans most abortions once a doctor can detect a fetal heartbeat.

A fetal heartbeat can usually be detected at six weeks of pregnancy, before most women even know they are pregnant.

Exceptions would be made in cases of rape, incest, if the life of woman is in danger or if a doctor determines the fetus would not survive after birth. However, women who become pregnant as a result of rape or incest would have to file an official police report in order to be eligible to receive an abortion under the new law.

In June, attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood, and the Center for Reproductive Rights sued the state on behalf of abortion providers and advocacy groups, arguing that the law is unconstitutional. It was set to take effect Jan. 1, 2020.

Judge Jones, a Barack Obama appointee, ruled Tuesday that U.S. Supreme Court precedent established in Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey indicates that the groups are likely to succeed on the merits of their claim that the law violates Georgians’ right to privacy and liberty under the 14th Amendment.

Jones also found that the Supreme Court has “repeatedly and unequivocally held that a state may not ban abortion prior to viability.”

“By prohibiting abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected, months before the point of viability, Section 4 of H.B. 481 does exactly that,” the judge wrote.

Jones noted that recent rulings in cases challenging similar laws in North Dakota, Arkansas, Arizona, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, and Mississippi further support a finding that the law is unconstitutional.

“The court also notes that several lower and intermediate federal courts have uniformly and repeatedly struck down similar attempts to ban abortions prior to viability,” the 47-page ruling states.

Jones also ruled that a portion of the law recognizing unborn children as “natural persons” runs up against Supreme Court precedent, pointing out that the court refused to conclude that the word “person” includes the unborn in its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

In addition to severely limiting access to abortion in the state, the law allows patients to sue doctors and nurses who provide them with care which results in the accidental or unintentional injury or death of an embryo or fetus.

In Tuesday’s ruling, Jones found that the law’s new personhood definition could leave medical providers open to “arbitrary or discriminatory enforcement” due to the law’s vagueness with regard to what types of conduct or procedures with the potential to adversely affect a patient’s pregnancy might be prohibited.

“H.B. 481 changes the definition of a natural person in Georgia, but defendants have been unable to point to any guidance for law enforcement or the judiciary on how to implement that change throughout the code,” the ruling states.

Georgia law currently prohibits abortions after about 12 weeks of pregnancy, unless the pregnancy is diagnosed as medically futile or an abortion is necessary to prevent the death of the mother.

The current laws governing abortions will remain in effect pending a final decision in the fetal-heartbeat case.

Kemp’s spokeswoman Candice Broce said in a statement that the governor’s office is still reviewing Jones’ ruling.

“Despite today’s outcome, we remain confident in our position,” Broce said. “We will continue to fight for the unborn and work to ensure that all Georgians have the opportunity to live, grow, and prosper.”

Sean Young, legal director of the ACLU of Georgia, applauded the ruling.

“This case has always been about one thing: letting her decide. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but every woman is entitled to her own decision,” Young said.

%d bloggers like this: