Georgia Supreme Court upholds six-week abortion ban

ATLANTA – The Georgia Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a state law prohibiting most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy may remain in effect.

The General Assembly’s Republican majorities passed the Living Infants Fairness and Equality (LIFE) Act in 2019 banning abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, with exceptions for rape, incest, and medical emergencies.

But federal courts blocked the law from taking effect until late last year, when the state Supreme Court reimposed the ban pending the outcome of a lawsuit challenging the law filed by the reproductive rights group Sistersong.

The plaintiffs, other pro-choice groups, and legislative Democrats argued the Georgia law should be declared unconstitutional because when it was enacted in 2019, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Roe v. Wade case protecting women’s right to abortion remained the law of the land.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney agreed and ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor last November, only to be quickly overturned when the state Supreme Court temporary reimposed the ban.

On Tuesday, a majority of the justices sided with the state’s argument that the abortion ban should stay in effect because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last year in the Dobbs case that overturned Roe v. Wade and removed the constitutional right to abortion.

“When the United States Supreme Court overrules its own precedent interpreting the United States Constitution, we are then obligated to apply the court’s new interpretation of the constitution’s meaning on matters of federal constitutional law,” Justice Verda M. Colvin, wrote in the court’s majority opinion.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice John J. Ellington agreed with the lower-court ruling that the Georgia law should not be allowed to stay in effect because last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision on abortion was not the law of the land when Georgia lawmakers passed the LIFE Act four years ago.

An act “cannot spring to life because of any subsequent change in the law,” he wrote.

Ellington went on to write that the six-week abortion ban should be allowed only if the General Assembly revisits the issue and re-enacts the law.

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who signed the LIFE Act into law in 2019, applauded Tuesday’s ruling.

“Today’s victory represents one more step towards ending this litigation and ensuring the lives of Georgians at all ages are protected,” Kemp said.

Sistersong Executive Director Monica Simpson called the decision “devastating.”

“This abortion ban has forced Georgians to travel across state lines at great expense or continue the life-altering consequences of pregnancy and childbirth against their wills,” she said.

U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Atlanta, who also serves as chairperson of the Georgia Democratic Party, said Democrats will make Tuesday’s ruling an issue in next year’s election campaigns.

“Come 2024, we’ll fight to keep anti-abortion extremists out of both the White House and the statehouse and work to codify protections for reproductive freedom into federal law,” she said. “Today’s ruling is a blow to Georgians and to reproductive freedom, but the fight continues.”

Becerra addresses new insulin cap, abortion drug during Atlanta visit  

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., addressed national and state health concerns in Altanta on Monday. (Photo credit: John Arthur Brown)

ATLANTA – U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra addressed national and state health concerns Monday from senior drug prices to abortion during an Atlanta visit. 

Becerra, joined by U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., spent the morning visiting Ser Familia, a Latino community center in Norcross.

The Democratic duo touted a provision of the Inflation Reduction Act passed last year that sets a $35 monthly cap on the cost of insulin for Americans over age 65 enrolled in Medicare.  

“No senior in Georgia, no senior in America will have to pay more than $35 per month for insulin,” Ossoff said about the new law, which took effect at the start of the year.  

“There was fierce opposition from drug companies who are accustomed to making a lot of money. … We stood up in passing this law to save seniors in Georgia hundreds of dollars per year and helped them afford life-saving medicine.”

Becerra shared the story of a senior in Texas who purchased insulin at the new low price but returned to the pharmacy to settle up because she thought she had erroneously underpaid and felt guilty.  

“You should not be paying more than $35,” Becerra said. “If you are, you’re entitled to your money back.”  

“Save that money for other important things or some kind of gift … for your grandchild,” Becerra quipped.  

Becerra and Ossoff added that under the new law, doctor-prescribed preventive vaccines such as the shingles vaccine are now free for seniors on Medicare.  

Becerra and Ossoff also addressed a Texas federal judge’s ruling last week that a drug used in medication abortions, mifepristone, was improperly approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) back in 2000. 

However, a different federal judge in Washington state issued a ruling blocking the FDA from removing mifepristone from the market.  

“We feel very confident that, ultimately, we will prevail in court,” Becerra said Monday. “One judge in one court in one state should not have the ability to undermine safe and effective medicines that millions of Americans rely on.” 

Both Becerra and Ossoff said mifepristone is still legal and available.  

During an afternoon event in Atlanta, Becerra addressed Georgia health care, suggesting that the state fully expand Medicaid as 40 other states have done.  

“What we can do in places like the state of Georgia is offer the chance to make this a unified system of health,” he said. “That’s why the Affordable Care Act allowed states to expand access to health care through Medicaid. We [the federal government] would pay for most of it.”

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and other state Republican leaders have opposed full Medicaid expansion, arguing it would be too costly and that a more limited expansion plan that offers Medicaid to some low-income Georgians who meet work or education requirements is a better fit for the state. That plan is set to take effect this summer.

Becerra also addressed the upcoming nationwide Medicaid “unwinding” in which pandemic-era Medicaid regulations will be relaxed and states will need to determine whether current Medicaid enrollees are still eligible for the program. 

“We all want to do a good job because these are our kids,” Becerra said. “Let’s get to a wellness care system and move away from an illness care system.”  

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Georgia Supreme Court hears arguments in abortion ban case 

A protest against Georgia’s abortion ban outside the state Capitol. (Photo credit: Rebecca Grapevine)

ATLANTA – The state Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday in a case challenging a Georgia law banning most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy.  

The General Assembly passed – and Gov. Brian Kemp signed – the LIFE Act (House Bill 481) in 2019. The law bans most abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected with exceptions in the case of rape, incest and medical emergencies. 

Federal courts blocked the law from taking effect for several years. But after the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated the constitutional right to an abortion by overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision last June, a federal judge allowed the Georgia law to take effect.  

Opponents of the measure – led by reproductive rights group SisterSong – then took their fight to state court. Last November, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney ruled the Georgia law had been void from the start because it violated the U.S. Constitution as it stood in 2019, when Georgia’s abortion ban was enacted.  

Republican state Attorney General Chris Carr and his team appealed that ruling, giving rise to the Georgia Supreme Court case heard on Tuesday. Soon after, the state Supreme Court ruled that the law could take effect in Georgia while litigation was pending, meaning that most abortions after six weeks are currently banned in Georgia.  

“The LIFE Act engenders strong policy views, but there is nothing controversial or difficult about the legal question before this court, which is simply whether an erroneous, overruled judicial opinion can invalidate a state statute,” Stephen Petrany argued for the attorney general’s office.  

“Because the LIFE Act would be valid if enacted today, under the exact same federal Constitution, it was valid when it was enacted [in 2019],” Petrany added.  

In contrast, lawyers for the groups challenging the law countered that the law was void when the state legislature passed it and therefore should be deemed invalid, despite the subsequent U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.  

“When the legislature passes a law that is in violation of the Constitution, it is an overstep of their authority to do so,” Julia Stone argued.  

“This is not a case where there was gray area … in 2019,” Stone added. “For 50 years, the rule was states could not ban abortions before the point of viability, and when the General Assembly passed HB 481 and sought to ban abortions … [that] had been perfectly clear for 50 years. [The state legislature] directly conflicted with that precedent.” 

At a post-hearing press conference in front of the Supreme Court, Stone noted that if the law is struck down, Georgia lawmakers could enact another abortion ban but would have to do so in the new legal and political environment created by the overturning of Roe v. Wade.  

The Supreme Court is likely to issue a decision in the case by this summer. The South Carolina Supreme Court in January found that state’s similar abortion law unconstitutional under state law.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Georgia Democrats looking to repeal abortion ban

State Sen. Sally Harrell

ATLANTA – Democrats in the General Assembly have introduced legislation to repeal Georgia’s ban on most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy.

The Republican-controlled legislature passed House Bill 481 in 2019. The so-called “heartbeat” bill prohibited most abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected. But federal courts blocked the law from taking effect until last summer, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion.

While the high court’s ruling appeared to clear the way for the Georgia law, pro-choice groups have challenged it in state courts. The case is currently before the Georgia Supreme Court.

Polls have shown that most Georgians support safe and legal abortions, said state Sen. Sally Harrell, D-Atlanta, chief sponsor of Senate Bill 15.

“It is not the state’s job to determine if a woman intentionally caused her miscarriage, or to investigate a doctor who may have performed an abortion to save a mother’s life, or to force people to subscribe to one particular religious view on when life begins,” Harrell said. “It is the government’s job to protect Georgians’ rights to privacy, dignity, and personal belief.”

“Health-care workers around the state have seen the harmful effects of HB 481,” added Sen. Jason Esteves, D-Atlanta. “They fear a lack of comprehensive training in reproductive health care and possible jail time if they provide potentially life-saving care.”

But the Reproductive Freedom Act stands no chance of passing the Senate, where Republicans hold 33 of the 56 seats. All five of the bill’s cosponsors are Democrats.

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp touted passage of the abortion ban during his first year in office on the campaign trail last year, and the Georgia GOP has long made opposition to abortion a pillar of its platform.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

First bill of next year’s General Assembly session targets Georgia’s abortion ban  

Democratic State Rep. Dar’shun Kendrick, D-Lithonia, filed the first bill of the 2023 legislative session.

ATLANTA – The first bill prefiled for the 2023 legislative session takes aim at one of the hottest political topics in Georgia, a law that bans abortions at around six weeks of pregnancy. 

House Bill 1 (HB 1) would require the state to pay for many of the costs of having and caring for a child for mothers who would like to have had an abortion but were prohibited from doing so by the Georgia law that prohibits the procedure after fetal cardiac activity can be detected. 

Democratic state Rep. Dar’Shun Kendrick of Lithonia filed the proposal last week, gaining the coveted “HB 1” designation. The bill is officially titled The Georgia Pro-Birth Accountability Act. 

Georgia’s abortion ban dates back to 2019, when the Republican-led General Assembly approved – and GOP Gov. Brian Kemp signed – a law that bans most abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy. The law, alternatively known as the Heartbeat Bill or The LIFE Act, was blocked from taking immediate effect by federal courts. 

The U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of the landmark abortion rights decision Roe v. Wade last summer opened the door for the Georgia ban to take effect. Pro-choice groups challenged the law in the state courts, and the matter is currently before the Georgia Supreme Court. 

Last week, the high court said the law could remain in effect while the case is pending.  

House Bill 1 is based on the assumption that the abortion ban will remain in effect. The proposal requires the state to cover a wide range of expenses for mothers who otherwise would have had abortions if not for the ban. 

Those expenses include medical, legal, and psychological expenses related to the pregnancy and postpartum period. The bill also requires the state to provide financial and food assistance to the woman as well as her child until the child is 18. If the mother is disabled due to the pregnancy, or if the child is born with a disability, the state would also cover those costs. 

The legislation would require the state to pay child support to an unmarried woman if the father cannot or will not pay child support. It also would require the state to fund an IRS 529 savings trust that would help pay for the child’s higher education.  

Women would be able to qualify for the program by filing an affidavit with the state’s Department of Human Services stating that they would have had an abortion if not for the Georgia ban on abortions.  

Kendrick said she filed the bill to make a point, although she is aware it has little chance of success in the state House next year. 

“If we want to say we are a pro-life state, then we need to put our money where our mouth is, that means childcare, that means the mother’s expenses. That means helping raise the child from birth to age 18 and not just caring about the nine months that they’re in the womb,” Kendrick said. “We’ll see where the priorities lie, because if we do have a surplus, if we continue to have one, there’s no reason that we can’t fund this.”  

Kendrick said she requested a fiscal analysis of how much the proposal would cost and will make that information public when she receives it.

“This is essentially a bill to see who is going to stand up on those principles and … who is, as I suspect, really just trying to control women’s reproductive rights.”  

Republicans, including Kemp, have argued the legislature has taken steps to create a pro-life culture in the state, such as passing measures that make it easier for Georgians to adopt and expanding postpartum Medicaid for new mothers for up to a year after delivery.

“[We] are committed to continuing Georgia’s reputation of being a state that protects life at all stages,” Kemp said in May when he signed a law that allows nonprofits and religious institutions to set up free maternity homes for pregnant women and new mothers.

Republican Rep. Ed Setzler of Acworth, who sponsored the 2019 abortion law, criticized Kendrick’s bill. (Setzler was recently elected to the state Senate and will begin his term in January after 17 years in the state House.)  

“Upon cursory review, it’s obvious that Representative Kendrick is putting forth a cynical, non-serious bill candidly trivializing the value of human life,” said Setzler.

The state legislature is set to begin the 2023 session Jan. 9.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.