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Georgia fetal heartbeat law takes effect after federal court ruling


Primeiya | Shutterstock

John Burger - published on 07/21/22

Striking down Roe opened way for legislation that had been blocked for three years.

Unborn human lives in the state of Georgia are now legally protected once a heartbeat can be detected.

A federal court on Wednesday allowed the state’s fetal heartbeat law, House Bill 481, to go into effect, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last month overturning Roe v. Wade.

The Georgia law had been blocked by courts since its enactment in 2019, but since the Supreme Court ruled in its June 24 Dobbs v. Jackson decision that there is no constitutional basis for a right to abortion, a three judge panel of the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered that the heartbeat law be allowed to take effect.

Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Org. makes clear that no right to abortion exists under the Constitution, so Georgia may prohibit them,” said the court’s decision, written by Chief Judge William Pryor. The state has a “rational basis” for the heartbeat law, given its interest in “providing full legal recognition to an unborn child,” said the decision.

In the Dobbs decision, the Supreme Court deemed that “rational-basis review” – which seeks to determine whether a law is “rationally related” to a “legitimate” government interest – will be the standard to judge state abortion regulations when they undergo constitutional challenges. 

Abortion was previously allowed in Georgia up to about 22 weeks gestation. Now, it will be illegal after about six weeks, when an unborn baby’s heartbeat can usually be detected.

A federal judge blocked the law in October 2019, before it could take effect, saying it violated the right to abortion established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade. The Dobbs decision, overturning Roe, cleared the way for Wednesday’s Circuit Court ruling. 

The law provides for exceptions in cases of a medical emergency or when a pregnancy is diagnosed as “medically futile.” There are also exceptions for rape or incest if a police report is filed. The law also establishes that unborn children are legal persons.

Alexis McGill Johnson, president of Planned Parenthood, called Wednesday’s decision “a grave human rights violation,” and vowed that Planned Parenthood “will do everything in our power to fight back and ensure all people can get the health care they need, regardless of where they live.”

But Gov. Brian Kemp cheered the court’s decision.

“We are overjoyed that the court has paved the way for the implementation of Georgia’s LIFE Act,” Kemp said. “And as mothers navigate pregnancy, birth, parenthood, or alternative options to parenthood — like adoption — Georgia’s public, private, and nonprofit sectors stand ready to provide the resources they need to be safe, healthy, and informed.”

WSB TV Channel 2 Action News reported that several metro Atlanta district attorneys have said they will not prosecute women and doctors involved with abortion procedures.

“District attorneys in DeKalb, Fulton, Gwinnett, Douglas, Clarke and Oconee counties have made similar pledges,” WSB said. “Between those six counties, that’s nearly a third of all Georgians who would be exempt.”

Meanwhile, Indiana Republican lawmakers introduced a bill that would ban abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or medical emergency — a measure likely to win passage that would dramatically cut abortion access in the Midwestern state, Reuters reported. The legislature is expected to take up the bill in a special session starting next week. 

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