Abortion rights activists chanted "shame" as Republicans on a Georgia Senate committee moved Monday to ban most abortions once a fetal heartbeat can be detected.
The Senate Science and Technology Committee approved the bill on a party-line vote of 3 to 2, according to The Associated Press. The legislation, backed by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, has passed the House and now could go quickly to the floor of the GOP-controlled Senate.
Republicans are moving to enact tough abortion restrictions in the state legislatures they control, even though they're certain to be challenged in court. Similar "heartbeat" bills just passed the Ohio Senate and the Tennessee House, and are advancing in Mississippi, Florida and South Carolina.
They're hoping the U.S. Supreme Court – with new Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh – will uphold state laws that undermine the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling establishing the right of women to abort a fetus that can't survive outside the womb.
Courts have repeatedly struck down laws similar to the Georgia bill. A state judge found Iowa's "heartbeat" law to be unconstitutional in January. Last week, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order blocking enforcement of "heartbeat" measure in Kentucky.
In Georgia today, women have the legal right to seek abortions during the first 20 weeks of a pregnancy. A fetal heartbeat is generally detectable at around six weeks, before many women know they are pregnant.
Under House Bill 481, with some exceptions, abortions wouldn’t be allowed if a fetal heartbeat can be detected. Typically, a heartbeat can be detected by ultrasound at around six weeks gestation.
There are exceptions to protect the life and health of the mother, for “medically futile” pregnancies and for rape or incest. Under the rape or incest provision, a police report must be filed for the rape or incest incident and the abortion must be performed before 20 weeks. Under Georgia’s current laws, most abortions are restricted after 20 weeks.
The health/life exemption states that an abortion is allowed only if it is “necessary to avert the death of the pregnant woman or avert serious risk of substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman.” The exemption does not apply if it is based on a diagnosis or claim of a mental or emotional condition or if the pregnant woman will purposefully engage in conduct that will cause her death or impairment. An abortion – which is defined in Georgia law as using various means to terminate a pregnancy – is also allowed if it is necessary to preserve the life of the unborn child.
When an abortion is performed under the life/health exemptions, it must be done in the manner that “provides the best opportunity for the unborn child to survive,” unless the doctor determines that terminating the pregnancy in that manner would cause a greater risk of the pregnant woman’s death or irreversible physical impairment.
If the baby is capable of sustained life outside the womb, “medical aid then available must be rendered."
Because the law is based on a fetal heartbeat, it wouldn’t apply in cases of a baby dying in the womb, and wouldn’t prohibit procedures needed after a miscarriage.
“There is no intent to cause a woman to have essentially a stillbirth,” said State Rep. Josh Bonner, R-Peachtree City in a previous Newnan Times-Herald interview. Bonner, whose district includes the Senoia and Haralson areas, is one of the co-sponsors of the bill.
Though HB 481 was only introduced Feb. 25, “it has been in the works for some time,” Bonner said.
A large portion of the bill’s language lays out the legal basis for the restrictions, based on the 1992 U.S. Supreme Court Case Planned Parenthood vs. Casey.
According to the language of HB 481, the court ruled that, at the point of “fetal viability,” states can protect the potentiality of human life of the unborn child.
Fetal viability is usually considered 23 or even 22 weeks, as measured from a woman’s last-missed menstrual period.
HB 481 seeks to redefine fetal viability as when a heartbeat can be ascertained. The bill states that the presence of the fetal heartbeat “has become the standard in establishing the viability of a pregnancy” and that the American Academy of Obstetricians and Gynecology states that detecting a fetal heartbeat through an ultrasound is the preferred way to determine the presence of a “viable intrauterine gestation."
The bill further states that unborn babies are considered “natural persons” under Georgia law, and are to be counted in the U.S. Census. Pregnant women would be able to claim their unborn children as dependents on tax returns.
In the case of the homicide of an unborn child, the parent would have the right, in a civil suit, to recover for the full value of life of the child, if a heartbeat were present, according to the bill.
“What is unique about this particular bill… is that it seeks to treat that baby in the womb exactly as you would treat it outside the womb,” Bonner said.
It’s a novel argument in the abortion debate. Bonner said that it is his understanding that no other abortion law in the country uses this argument.
The bill says that personhood begins when there is a heartbeat, Bonner said. “If we are serious about saying this is a person, a real human being, treat it as such, whether it’s inside or outside of the womb.”
Republicans have allowed some changes since House passage, including to allow a pregnant woman to pursue child support from the father for direct medical and pregnancy expenses.
According to AP, Republican Rep. Ed Setzler of Acworth, the House bill's author, said last week that the government's paramount duty under the state constitution is to protect "the fundamental right to life of our citizens, particularly those that are most defenseless among us."