Judge Strikes Down Georgia Heartbeat Abortion Law

Pro-abortion rights and anti-abortion demonstrators display signs in the lobby of the Georgia State Capitol building in March 2019. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, File)

(CN) — A federal judge in Georgia ruled Monday that a state law outlawing abortions after doctors can detect a fetal heartbeat, usually at about six weeks of pregnancy, is unconstitutional.

Ruling against the state in a lawsuit filed by abortion providers and an advocacy group, U.S. District Judge Steve Jones permanently blocked the controversial House Bill 481 — known as the Living Infants Fairness and Equality, or LIFE, Act — from taking effect. Jones, a Barack Obama appointee, had issued a preliminary injunction against the law in October.

The Republican-backed measure sought to ban abortions once a detectable human heartbeat was present in a fetus. 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.

The underlying lawsuit was filed in June 2019 by attorneys for SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, Feminist Women’s Health Center, Planned Parenthood Southeast and other abortion providers, plus three individual doctors.

Oriaku Njoku, co-founder and co-director of Access Reproductive Care Southeast, said in a statement Monday that the ruling striking down HB 481 is “a victory for our people, our communities, our futures.”

“But freedom from abortion bans is only part of what we need for reproductive justice, and for everyone to be able to parent, not parent, live, and thrive in safe, healthy communities,” she said. “It’s going to take every one of us showing up with our allies rising up as co-conspirators. We must break the cycles of anti-Blackness and state neglect and reproductive coercion that have been punishing our people and denying us our dreams for too long.”

SisterSong, an Atlanta-based group, called Monday’s ruling a “huge win for bodily autonomy.”

“No one should have to live in a world where their bodies and reproductive decision making is controlled by the state,” Monica Simpson, the group’s executive director, said in a statement.

But Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, a Republican who supported the fetal-heartbeat measure from the start, said the state will appeal the ruling.

“Georgia values life and we will keep fighting for the rights of the unborn,” Kemp said in a statement.

The reproductive rights advocates suing over the law, which passed by just two votes, argued it went against the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 landmark decision in Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion up until 22 to 24 weeks of pregnancy.

“Georgia’s law was a blatantly unconstitutional and baseless attack on abortion, and today’s ruling recognized that. Georgia has one of the worst records in the country on Black maternal mortality — but instead of addressing that deadly crisis, Governor Kemp and anti-abortion politicians would apparently rather attack Georgians’ reproductive freedom by passing a ban rooted in racism and misogyny,”  Elizabeth Watson, staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, said in a statement.

She added, “Georgians should have the right to access safe medical care whether they have decided to end a pregnancy or carry it to term, and we will always fight to make this a reality.”

Last year, 25 strict abortion regulations were enacted in 12 states, including Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Ohio, Tennessee and Utah. Nine of these states passed six-week abortion bans. 

Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court struck down a similar abortion restriction in Louisiana in a 5-4 decision. The ruling out of Georgia came just hours after a Tennessee law that banned abortion at nearly every stage of pregnancy was also blocked in federal court.

 Staci Fox, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Southeast, said the GOP-backed abortion bans like the one in Georgia are “blatantly unconstitutional.”

“While people across this state and around the country are literally dying from Covid-19 and systemic racism, our leaders should be focused on expanding access to health care — not restricting it,” Fox said in a statement. “We celebrate this victory, but we know the fight is far from over. We will not back down until access to health care — including safe, legal abortion — is recognized as a basic human right.”

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