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.  

Georgia Supreme Court reinstates abortion ban

ATLANTA – The Georgia Supreme Court reinstated Georgia’s law banning most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy Wednesday just over a week after a lower court judge had blocked the law from taking effect. 

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney had ruled last week that the Georgia abortion ban was unconstitutional and blocked state officials from enforcing it.  

The so-called “heartbeat” law, initially passed in 2019, prohibits abortions in Georgia after a fetal heartbeat is detected. It has faced legal challenges since its inception, first in federal courts and now in Georgia state courts. 

After the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June overturning the 1973 landmark abortion-rights case Roe v. Wade, a federal appeals court allowed the Georgia law to take effect in July. 

Pro-choice groups then took their fight to state court, where McBurney enjoined the law. Soon after, lawyers for the state filed notice of their intent to appeal to the state Supreme Court. They also filed an emergency petition asking the court to reinstitute the abortion law while the case is pending.  

The court agreed to do so Wednesday in a one-page ruling representing a unanimous 7-0 decision. Two justices – Nels S.D. Peterson and Andrew Pinson – did not participate in the case.  

“We are pleased with the court’s action today,” said Kara Richardson, spokesperson for Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr. “However, we are unable to provide further comment due to the pending appeal.”

The plaintiffs in the case – led by reproductive rights group SisterSong — argued that reinstituting the ban while the legal battle continues could harm women.   

They also asked the Supreme Court to provide one day’s advance notice of the re-institution of the law so that providers and patients are not taken by surprise ahead of scheduled procedures. However, the court declined to provide the advance notice.  

“It is cruel that our patients’ ability to access the reproductive health care they need has been taken away yet again,” said Kwajelyn Jackson, executive director of Feminist Women’s Health Center, one of the plaintiffs in the case.

“For the second time this year, we are being forced to turn away those in need of abortion care beyond six weeks of pregnancy. This ban has wreaked havoc on Georgians’ lives, and our patients deserve better. We will keep fighting to protect our patients and their health.” 

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

Fulton County judge blocks Georgia’s abortion ban

ATLANTA – A Fulton County Superior Court judge ruled Tuesday that the state cannot enforce a 2019 Georgia law banning most abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy.  

Judge Robert McBurney’s ruling found key provisions of the abortion ban were void “ab initio,” or from the start, because they violate the U.S. Constitution – as it stood when the legislature passed and Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed the law in 2019.

“At the time … it was unequivocally unconstitutional for governments – federal, state, or local—to ban abortions before viability,” wrote McBurney.  

McBurney found two key provisions of the Georgia law void: a provision allowing doctors to be charged with a felony for performing an abortion and a requirement that doctors report their rationales for “otherwise illegal” abortions to the state Department of Public Health.  

McBurney’s order prohibits any state or local government official from enforcing the abortion law.  

But it leaves the door open for the General Assembly to reconsider the abortion issue in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last June to overturn the landmark 1973 abortion-rights decision Roe v. Wade. 

“It may someday become the law of Georgia, but only after our legislature determines in the sharp glare of public attention that will undoubtedly and properly attend such an important and consequential debate,” wrote McBurney.   

Georgia enacted House Bill 481, also known as the “heartbeat law” or the LIFE Act, three years ago. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit  – led by reproductive rights group SisterSong  –  challenged the law in federal court.  

After the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade, a federal appeals court allowed the Georgia law to take effect in July. The pro-choice advocates then took their fight to Fulton County Superior Court, challenging the abortion ban on the ground that it violated both the federal and Georgia constitutions.

“Today’s ruling recognizes that the legislature’s decision to take away abortion access across our state was in clear violation of the law,” said Andrea Young, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, which represented the plaintiffs in the case. “Today is a great day for Georgia women and for all Georgians. Today their right to make decisions for their own bodies, health, and families is vindicated.”  

The state, represented by the office of Republican Attorney General Chris Carr, has already filed an appeal with the Georgia Supreme Court, said spokeswoman Kara Richardson. Carr was re-elected to a second full term as attorney general last week.

“[We] will continue to fulfill our duty to defend the laws of our state in court,” added Richardson.

Abortion will also likely play a key role in the December U.S. Senate runoff between Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker. Warnock is pro-choice, while Walker has supported the Georgia abortion law. Walker has denied allegations that he paid for two ex-girlfriends’ abortions.  

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

Pro-choice advocates argue against abortion law in state court

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney

ATLANTA – Both sides in the legal battle over Georgia’s 2019 law banning most abortions after about six weeks into a pregnancy made their cases during a trial in state court this week.

While the General Assembly enacted the abortion law three years ago, federal court rulings prevented it from taking effect until this summer after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion.

Pro-choice advocates then challenged the law in state court, arguing it is unconstitutional under the Georgia Constitution’s right to privacy.

During the trial in Fulton County Superior Court this week, lawyers for the plaintiffs presented expert witnesses including doctors, a public health expert and an ultrasound technician. The experts argued that the law has detrimental effects on Georgians’ health.

 “Georgia’s ban has disproportionately harmed communities that already face barriers to health care: Black, Indigenous, and people of color; people with low incomes; and those who live in rural communities,” Alexis McGill Johnson, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said Tuesday after the court hearing concluded. “We have asked the court to end this state-inflicted trauma so that providers in Georgia can care for the patients who need them.” 

Lawyers for the state questioned the methods and conclusions of the plaintiffs’ witnesses and presented their own expert testimony in support of House Bill 481. 

“Human life begins when the sperm fertilizes the egg,  the moment of conception when that new human being becomes a genetically distinct person,” said Dr. Jeffrey Wright, a specialist in maternal-fetal medicine who practices in North Carolina who has served as an expert witness in abortion cases in other states.

Wright said Georgia’s law provides sufficient exceptions to allow physicians to decide to perform abortions if the life of the mother is at risk.

“[Doctors] can still provide that same medical care,” he said.

Fulton Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney said Monday he would not rule on the matter until after Georgia’s Nov. 8 midterm elections, in part due to the extensive evidence presented to him.

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