A Look At Georgia’s New ‘Heartbeat Bill’ And What Happens Next

Georgia's new abortion law explained and what it means for the state.
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Gov. Brian Kemp signed Georgia’s restrictive abortion bill into law in early May, but the fight over H.B. 481 or the “heartbeat bill” is far from over.

Civil and reproductive rights groups, such as the ACLU of Georgia, have promised to sue over the law, which bans most abortions as early as six weeks into a pregnancy.

Both abortion rights supporters and opponents see that legal fight making it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and potentially challenging existing abortion protections.

In the meantime, questions abound about what the measure actually says and what it means for Georgia. (Read the full law’s text here.)

In early May, Gov. Brian Kemp signed legislation banning abortions once a heartbeat can be detected. The signing capped off weeks of tension and protests at the state Capitol in Atlanta, and marks the beginning of what could be a lengthy and costly legal battle over the law’s constitutionality. (Sam Whitehead/WABE)

What does the “heartbeat bill” actually do?

The law bans most abortions as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. That’s around the time that an embryo’s cardiac activity can be detected in the womb, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).

It’s from that definition that the measure and others like it around the country take their names: “heartbeat bills.” Though, technically, these aren’t “fetal heartbeats.” ACOG says at six weeks, a woman is carrying an embryo, not a fetus.

But Georgia’s law does not ban all abortions as early as six weeks. It does offer some exceptions: if a doctor determines a pregnancy is “medically futile;” to protect the life of the mother; in the case of rape or incest, if a police report has been filed.

Opponents argue a ban at around six weeks is effectively an outright abortion ban, since many women don’t know they’re pregnant at that time.

What about the “personhood” of an embryo?

Georgia’s law doesn’t just ban most abortions as soon as six weeks into a pregnancy. It also defines an embryo as a person as soon as cardiac activity can be detected in the womb.

That gives embryos certain rights. For example, they would need to be included in population counts and could be claimed as a dependent for taxation purposes. It also means a mother could claim child support for an embryo.

Is abortion still legal right now in Georgia? 

Yes, abortion is still legal in Georgia. Even though Kemp signed H.B. 481 into law in early May, the law doesn’t take effect until Jan.1, 2020.

Current Georgia law allows abortions during the first 20 weeks of a pregnancy. There are exceptions in the case of rape or incest, to protect the life of the mother, or if the pregnancy is deemed “medically futile.”

Georgia’s current abortion statute, which restricts the procedure after 20 weeks, was passed in 2012 and was the subject of its own legal fight.

Does this law criminalize miscarriages? 

Based on the wording of the law, miscarriages are not included in the definition of “abortion.”

The measure specifically exempts any “naturally occurring death of an unborn child, including a miscarriage or stillbirth” and the removal of an ectopic pregnancy from that definition.

Staci Fox, the CEO of Planned Parenthood Southeast, has argued that a woman with a miscarriage could be pulled into an investigation about whether it was an abortion or not. But there is nothing in the bill language on the topic.

Abortion rights advocates gathered at the state Capitol as Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed the so-called ‘heartbeat bill’ into law. (Sam Whitehead/WABE)

When will the legal fight start?

The heads of the ACLU of Georgia and Planned Parenthood Southeast have both said they would be involved in legal challenges to the measure.

A spokesperson for the ACLU of Georgia said their case will likely be filed over the summer. That would be before the law takes effect on Jan. 1, 2020.

If a suit is filed, a judge could temporarily block the law from taking effect while the case proceeds. A federal judge did just that with a Kentucky abortion law earlier this year before striking it down.

What about the U.S. Supreme Court?

Supporters and opponents of Georgia’s law think any legal challenge could make it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Still, legal experts say that could take a while — as long as a year. And there’s no guarantee the high court would even decide to hear such a case or that Georgia’s would be the one chosen.

It’s also important to remember Roe v. Wade is not the only relevant Supreme Court ruling on abortion.

Planned Parenthood v. Casey upheld the basic principle of Roe that women have a right to end a pregnancy. But it also said states could regulate abortions, so long as those regulations did not create an “undue burden.”

Short of overturning Roe, the high court could simply chip away at abortion protections by revisiting the decision in Casey.

What’s the difference between Georgia’s law and Alabama’s law? 

First of all, Georgia’s law includes exceptions for rape and incest, which Alabama’s does not. (Alabama’s law and Georgia’s both include exceptions for ectopic pregnancies, lethal anomalies in unborn children and medical emergencies.)

Secondly, Georgia’s treats an embryo as a person with full legal rights, which Alabama’s law does not.

President Donald Trump recently said he supports exceptions for rape and incest. As of publication, Gov. Brian Kemp had not commented on the Alabama law.

Why is it such a hot topic now if any court decision is so far off?   

These “heartbeat bills” are quickly becoming an issue in the 2020 election. There is fundraising around “protections of women’s rights” on the left and fundraising around “pro-life” agendas on the right.

As WABE Legal Analyst Page Pate put it: “Both sides are wanting everybody to panic and make this a huge issue, and it’s the most potent thing to drive out votes. And that’s all fine. It’s an  important issue but legally there’s no fire alarm going off right now in the courts.”