ATLANTA – Pro-life advocates and lawmakers stood inside Gov. Brian Kemp’s ceremonial office to celebrate the signing of one of the country’s toughest abortion laws, smiling proudly for group photos and declaring it a historic day for Georgia.
Meanwhile, opponents gathered just outside the window vowing to continue the fight and keep the doors of abortion clinics open.
Kemp’s signature on the highly contentious bill launched Georgia into the national news this week, making it the fourth state this year where a governor has signed off on a “heartbeat” bill.
The measure bans most abortions once a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which is about six weeks into a pregnancy and before many women know they are pregnant. Several other states are considering similar measures.
Georgia’s current law – which remains in effect until January – allows for an abortion up until 20 weeks.
“Georgia is a state that values life. We protect the innocent. We champion the vulnerable. We stand up and speak for those who are unable to speak for themselves,” Kemp said shortly before signing the bill into the law.
In statehouses across the country, the same debates are playing out as anti-abortion advocates – buoyed by the recent conservative shift on the U.S. Supreme Court – earnestly push measures aimed at challenging the landmark court decision that has for decades protected a woman’s right to an abortion until a fetus can survive on its own outside the uterus.
And with the stroke of his pen, the first-term Republican governor ended an emotional, bitter fight that has played out under the Gold Dome this year and started a new and likely costly battle that now moves into the courtroom.
Georgia’s new law is one of the latest developments in a national push to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, but the measure’s lead sponsor argues that his bill’s approach is different.
“Other states have passed ‘heartbeat’ bills as an abortion restriction,” Rep. Ed Setzler, a Republican from Acworth who is an engineering manager, said in a recent interview. “We dealt with the personhood of the unborn child across Georgia code in a holistic way that’s consistent with what the courts would expect us to do.
“And I’m very proud of that,” he added. “And I think because of that we’re in a different position than other states as far as how this will be treated in the courts.”
The abortion restrictions are of course there, too. After a fetal heartbeat is detected, there are only four exceptions granted for a later abortion: if the mother’s life is at risk, the fetus is deemed medically futile or in the case of rape or incest – as long as a police report has been filed.
The law subjects health care professionals – and, some argue, potentially women – to criminal charges for any abortion or attempted abortion performed outside what the law narrowly allows.
Setzler points to a handful of components that he argues will establish the “personhood” of a fetus once a fetal heartbeat can be detected: the unborn child is included in the state’s population count, the parents can claim the unborn child on their income taxes, a pregnant woman can claim child support from the father for medical and pregnancy-related expenses, and a woman who has an abortion can sue her provider for damages.
Setzler argues that the new law balances the rights of a woman in a difficult situation with an unborn child’s right to life and that modern science and common sense are on his side.
State Sen. Jen Jordan, a Democrat from Atlanta who is an attorney, called this “personhood” aspect of the law the “most problematic part.”
“Come January 1, 2020, GA will recognize a fertilized egg as a ‘natural person’ under its laws,” she tweeted Thursday. “This (is) where #HB481 takes us off the rails and into unknown territory.”
The ACLU of Georgia and others have already announced that they intend to file a “comprehensive” legal challenge to Georgia’s law before the summer is over.
Andrea Young, who is the executive director of the ACLU of Georgia, called the measure a “Frankenstein bill” full of unjustifiable medical claims and implications for women’s health care.
“Do women have autonomy and self-determination under our constitution?” Young said. “Calling something ‘personhood’ doesn’t change that and calling cardiac activity a heartbeat doesn’t change that.”
‘A death sentence’
Proponents of Georgia’s new law say they see an opportunity to save the lives of unborn babies. In 2017, more than 27,000 pregnancies were terminated at abortion clinics, hospitals and surgical centers in Georgia, according to the state Department of Public Health.
But critics say that even if the strict abortion law survives a court challenge, it won’t be the lifesaver proponents envision.
Young, the leader of the ACLU of Georgia, said she was a freshman in college when the Roe v. Wade decision came down, and she was a teenager during a time of untrained, illegal abortion providers and what she called the “coat hanger era,” a reference to women attempting to self-abort.
“This law doesn’t end abortion, but it ends safe and legal abortion care for women and, frankly, it makes the whole continuum of reproductive health care for women more dangerous,” Young said.
Opponents argue that the law will primarily make it harder and more perilous for low-income women to access reproductive health care services, and they say minority women – who already succumb to pregnancy-related complications at higher rates – will likely suffer the most.
“Women with means will always be able to travel to access the care that they want and that they need,” said Barbara Ann Luttrell, director of communications and marketing at Planned Parenthood Southeast, which has four clinics in urban areas of the state.
“This is a direct attack on folks who don’t have those means and those resources to pick up and travel across the country to get an abortion,” she said. “What this could mean for the women of this state is a death sentence.”
Luttrell cited a 2014 study from the Guttmacher Institute that found that about 96% of Georgia’s counties had no clinics that provide abortion services and that more than half of the women in the state lived in those counties.
Because of that, it is already difficult for women living in rural Georgia to find an abortion provider, said Wula Dawson with the Feminist Women’s Health Center in Atlanta, which is an abortion clinic.
The new law, Dawson said, would make that true for every woman in Georgia.
“We hear time and time again from our patients from rural areas how difficult it is to get care, to get transportation into the Atlanta metro area to the clinics that provide care,” Dawson said. “So there are already lots of barriers to this care.”
‘Bigger than us’
Even in a Republican-controlled General Assembly, the measure barely made it to Kemp’s desk. When it came back to the House for a final vote, it survived with just two “yes” votes to spare.
Rep. Jay Powell, a Republican from Camilla, voted in favor of the measure earlier in the session, but then voted against it on the second and final vote in the House.
Powell, who is an attorney, said in a recent interview that he was not convinced that lawmakers fully explored the ramifications of establishing “personhood” at six weeks, particularly when it comes to the income tax deduction.
The bill had only one committee hearing in the House – and that was the night before the first House vote on Crossover Day, which is the traditional deadline for a bill to clear at least one chamber.
“We spent more time on tax bills than we spent on something as important as that bill was,” said Powell, who is the former chair of the House Ways and Means Committee and now the head of the powerful Rules Committee. “I wanted us to make sure we knew exactly what we’re doing.”
There was also no fiscal note on the bill. Setzler estimates the tax break for expecting parents will cost the state about $10 million to $20 million annually.
Powell also noted that similar measures have not fared well in court.
“I have no real interest in beating our head against the wall and spending taxpayer money unless we know that it’s really going to make a difference,” he said.
Other lawmakers – particularly suburban Republicans in competitive districts – faced tremendous political pressure from both sides of the debate. Sen. Chuck Payne, a Republican from Dalton, said he decided to give a speech from the well because he knew some of his colleagues in the Senate were beginning to waver.
Payne said he wanted to remind them that they were dealing with something that is “bigger than us” and bigger than any election. Kemp’s signature means the issue will likely set the tone for next year’s statehouse elections.
“If you vote your conscience and what you know to be true and you lose, there’s no loss in that,” Payne said.