Georgia House Passes Fetal-Heartbeat Abortion Bill

Georgia members of the Handmaid Coalition protest the fetal-heartbeat abortion bill outside the state capitol building in Atlanta on March 8, 2019. (Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

ATLANTA (GA) — In the face of public outcry and protests from both anti-abortion and pro-abortion rights groups, Georgia’s Republican-controlled House on Friday sent a bill to the governor’s desk that would make it nearly impossible for women to get an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy.

House Bill 481 – also known as the Living Infants Fairness and Equality, or LIFE, Act – is among the harshest pieces of abortion legislation in the nation. With few exceptions, the measure will ban abortions after doctors are able to detect a fetal heartbeat.

Heartbeat detection is usually possible at six weeks of pregnancy, earlier than most women even know they are pregnant. Current Georgia law allows abortions to be performed up until 20 weeks of pregnancy.

“Modern medical science, not available decades ago, demonstrates that unborn children are a class of living, distinct persons… The state of Georgia, applying reasoned judgment to the full body of modern medical science, recognizes the benefits of providing full legal recognition to an unborn child above the minimum requirements of federal law,” the bill states.  

Exceptions will be made in cases of rape, incest, if the life of the mother 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. The bill will also allow women who have abortions performed on them to sue for civil damages.

Despite mounting pressure from state medical associations, Hollywood activists, pro-abortion rights protesters and even anti-abortion activists who said the law doesn’t go far enough, lawmakers in Georgia’s Republican-controlled House passed the bill Friday in a 92-78 vote.

The state Senate passed HB 481 last week after it was revised by a Senate committee. The legislation went back to the House for approval and will now be sent to the desk of Republican Governor Brian Kemp.

Kemp, who made his desire to sign the strictest abortion laws in the country a major facet of his 2018 gubernatorial campaign, is sure to sign the bill.

“I predict if we pass this bill and the governor signs it, someone will sue,” the bill’s sponsor Representative Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, admitted as House members peppered him with questions ahead of Friday’s vote.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia issued a statement Friday afternoon confirming Setzler’s prediction.

“If Gov. Kemp signs this abortion ban bill into law, the ACLU has one message: we will see you in court,” Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia, said.

“Georgia has one of the worst maternal death rates in the nation. Black women in Georgia have a maternal death rate of more than three times the unacceptably high rate for white women,” Young continued.  “This bill further erodes the health and well-being of Georgia’s women and reveals a callous disregard for their well-established Constitutional rights.”

A representative for Governor Kemp did not immediately respond Friday to a request for comment.

However, Kemp took to Twitter minutes after the House vote to express his support for the bill’s passage.

“Georgia values life. We stand up for the innocent and speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. The legislature’s bold action reaffirms our priorities and who we are as a state. I thank these lawmakers for their leadership and applaud their undeniable courage,” Kemp tweeted.

But anti-abortion group Georgia Right to Life continued to express its disapproval of the bill, which Executive Director Zemmie Fleck said does not go far enough in its protections for fetuses conceived after an incident of rape or fetuses deemed unlikely to survive after birth by a doctor.

“We are sad that [the bill] denies equal justice and equal protection for sub-classes of children in the womb. We are very sad over that. It is good that [the bill] recognizes the personhood of children but when you are not treating them all as equal children, that’s a problem,” Fleck told Courthouse News.

A representative for anti-abortion group Save The 1 told the Atlanta Journal Constitution it will also sue the state if the bill passes, claiming that the exceptions to the abortion ban are discriminatory because they value certain fetuses over others.

Elisabeth Smith, chief counsel of state policy at the Center for Reproductive Rights, told Courthouse News on Friday afternoon that the bill “is a near total ban on abortion, and Georgia lawmakers know it is unconstitutional.”

“They’re trying to get a Roe v. Wade test case before the Supreme Court, and they are not the only state,” Smith said. “More than twelve states have introduced six-week bans since January. To date, a six-week ban has never been enforced, and we are confident the courts will keep it that way.”

Governor Kemp is expected to sign the bill after the current legislative session ends on Tuesday.

Similar fetal heartbeat bills have been passed recently in Kentucky and Mississippi. The new laws run up against U.S. Supreme Court precedent stating that women have a right to an abortion until a fetus is viable outside the womb, which is usually at about 24 weeks into the pregnancy.

In the days leading up to the final House vote, Hollywood activists lead by actress Alyssa Milano launched a campaign to boycott Georgia and threatened negative implications for the state’s booming billion-dollar film and television production industry.

According to the Motion Picture Association of America, the industry has created more than 92,000 jobs and over $4 billion in wages in Georgia.

Milano, who is in Georgia shooting new episodes of the Netflix show “Insatiable,” joined 40 other celebrities – including Mia Farrow, Amy Schumer, Alec Baldwin, Laverne Cox, and Ben Stiller – in signing an open letter to Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, and Governor Kemp on Thursday morning.

The letter says the actors and actresses will push production companies to abandon Georgia if the bill is signed into law.

“We want to stay in Georgia. We want to continue to support the wonderful people, businesses, and communities we have come to love in the Peach State. But we will not do so silently, and we will do everything in our power to move our industry to a safer state for women if H.B. 481 becomes law,” the letter states.

In a statement Tuesday urging Kemp to veto the bill if it passed the House, the Writers Guild of America East and West called the bill a “draconian anti-choice measure.”

“This law would make Georgia an inhospitable place for those in the film and television industry to work, including our members. If the Georgia Legislature and Governor Kemp make HB 481 law, it is entirely possible that many of those in our industry will either want to leave the state or decide not to bring productions there. Such is the potential cost of a blatant attack on every woman’s right to control her own body,” the group said.

The potential economic fallout from HB 481 doesn’t end with potential million-dollar losses in Georgia’s film and television industry. The legislation’s passage could also result in the loss of millions of dollars in state tax revenue. It includes a provision allowing parents to claim fetuses as dependents on state tax returns once a heartbeat is detected, offering tax breaks for children who have not yet been born and, in the event of a miscarriage, may never be born.

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