Trial over Georgia's abortion law begins in Fulton County courtroom

The Lewis R. Slaton Courthouse in Downtown Atlanta, where the trial over Georgia's abortion law is taking place.

A bench trial over the state’s recently enacted abortion restrictions got underway Monday in Atlanta. It was the first of two days of hearings scheduled by Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney.

The courtroom was packed as McBurney heard oral arguments both for and against the law known as H.B. 481, which has been in effect since July, around a month following the United States Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade abortion guarantees.

Georgia’s abortion law prohibits most abortions after around six weeks of pregnancy, which is before many people know they’re pregnant. It includes exceptions for miscarriage, when the mother’s life is at risk and in cases of rape and incest if a police report is filed.

McBurney told the crowd in the courtroom that he appreciates how important the issue of abortion is to many people. 

“And for some people, it is very easily distilled into black or white. And it’s the ‘right to life,’ it’s ‘a woman’s right to choose,’ but as many of you in this room know, it’s more complicated than that,” he said, “There are a lot of complicated legal issues.”

Attorneys with the ACLU representing the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective and other Georgia advocacy groups and abortion providers, are asking the court to block enforcement of the law, saying it violates state privacy protections.

“The question is whether forced pregnancy infringes Georgians’ fundamental right to privacy under the state constitution, interferes with Georgians’ right to be let alone, and to the uninterrupted enjoyment of their life, body and health,” ACLU Staff Attorney Julia Kaye said in her opening statements before the court.  

In his opening arguments, Georgia Solicitor General Stephen Petrany pushed back strongly against that premise.

“There is no right to abortion under Georgia’s constitution. There’s nothing that even hints at a right to abortion under Georgia’s constitution.”

Petrany said abortion involves more than just an individual who seeks to end a pregnancy and therefore must remain in effect.

“These are unborn children that the state wants to protect. And there is no way of protecting them except to keep people from aborting, essentially,” Petrany said. 

The state’s legal team encompasses attorneys from the Washington D.C. based firm Schaerr Jaffe, including Chris Bartolomucci and Gene Schaerr, who cross-examined witnesses on the stand. 

Witnesses testifying in support of abortion access include plaintiff and OB-GYN specialist Dr. Carrie Cwiak from the Emory University School of Medicine, Emory Maternal and Fetal Medicine specialist Dr. Martina L Badell, Dr. Whitney Rice from the Rollins School of Public Health, Dr. Samantha Meltzer-Brody, Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and ultrasound technician Gloria Nesmith. 

The trial is expected to continue through Tuesday.

McBurney said Monday he does not plan to rule in the case this week.