After several hours of debate Friday evening, the Georgia Senate approved a bill that would dramatically restrict abortions in Georgia.
House Bill 481, officially known as the “Living Infants Fairness and Equality” – LIFE – Act, and informally known as “the heartbeat bill,” would prohibit abortions after the unborn baby has a detectable heartbeat, usually around six weeks gestation.
The vote followed several days of protests by abortion rights advocates, some of whom have donned the red capes and white bonnets worn by characters in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a book and series about a dystopian future in which infertility is very high and “handmaids” are assigned to bear children for elite couples who have trouble getting pregnant.
Security had been increased during the run up to the vote, and on Friday, over two dozen Georgia State Patrol cars flanked the Capitol building, according to The Associated Press.
HB 481 passed the Senate by a vote of 34 to 18 on a party-line vote, and now heads back to the House, because the Senate made several changes to the language of the bill.
The changes to the bill’s language were extensive, including adding a section of definitions and rewording the sections of the bill dealing with the life or health of the mother, but the abortion restrictions and exemptions are essentially the same in both bills.
The Senate version of the bill removed language that required that any abortion performed for a medical emergency or in the case of incest or rape be performed in a manner which provides the best chance for the unborn child to survive.
The House can either agree to the Senate changes, disagree with the Senate changes, or make more changes and send the bill back to the Senate.
Rep. David Stover, R-Palmetto, stated in a Facebook post that the House would be agreeing to the Senate changes next week.
There are only five legislative days remaining in the session – four next week and the final day on Tuesday, April 2.
If approved, the bill would take effect Jan. 1, 2020.
Abortions would still be allowed up to 20 weeks gestation if the pregnancies were the result of rape or incest. The exemption requires that the woman file a police report on the rape or incest.
The termination of a pregnancy is also allowed for a “medical emergency,” which is defined as a condition in which an abortion is necessary to prevent the death of a pregnant woman or the substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman. The bill leaves the determination of a medical emergency to a physician’s "reasonable medical judgement."
Abortions are also allowed for a pregnancy determined to be medically futile. The bill defines medically futile as the unborn child having a profound and irremediable congenital or chromosomal anomaly that is incompatible with sustaining life after birth, in reasonable medical judgement.
The bill also includes a provision allowing women to sue doctors who gave them abortions in violation of the law.
The Georgia Medical Association opposed the bill. In a letter to Sen. Renee Unterman, chairman of the Senate Science and Technology Committee, the president of the association states that HB 481 “both criminalizes physicians and creates a private right of action against physicians when physicians care for their patients within their scope of practice."
The letter further states that the bill could undermine efforts to recruit and retain OB-GYN doctors in Georgia and could further restrict access to health care in rural Georgia.
Under HB 481, an unborn child with a heartbeat is treated as a “natural person” under the law, and parents can claim the unborn child as a dependent on their taxes. Women can also seek child support for pregnancy related expenses from the child’s father.
The unborn child would be counted in the Census, as well.
State Rep. Josh Bonner, R-Peachtree City, one of the co-sponsors of the bill, said that HB 481 offers a novel legal argument for restricting abortions very early in pregnancy.
Georgia’s bill, as well as several others being passed around the country, are contemplated as challenges to Roe v. Wade.
A press release from the Georgia Senate Republican Caucus, sent shortly after the bill’s passage, says that, currently, roughly 20 percent of pregnancies in Georgia end in abortion. Most abortions in Georgia are prohibited after 20 weeks gestation.
The Governor of Mississippi signed a heartbeat bill on Thursday, and a similar law in Kentucky was temporarily blocked by a federal judge after Gov. Matt Bevin signed it on March 14, according to The AP.
The ACLU of Georgia sent out a press release Friday evening stating that it planned to sue if the bill becomes law. ACLU of Georgia Executive Director Andrea Young stated that a woman’s constitutional right to a legal abortion has been settled law for nearly 50 years.
“As we speak – Georgia has one of the worst maternal death rates in the nation. And the most recent data indicates that black women are almost three times more likely to die from childbirth than white women are. This is morally outrageous,” said Young, the daughter of former Ambassador, Atlanta mayor and Congressman Andrew Young. “The proposed legislation – HB 481 – represents a callous disregard for their health and wellness and contempt for the Constitutional Rights of Georgia’s women.”