A federal judge blocked a law in Georgia on Tuesday, which banned abortion after about 6 weeks of pregnancy and defined a fetus as a “natural person.” The law is one of a slew of highly restrictive abortion laws passed in states with conservative legislatures over the summer, all of which are now the subject of legal battles.
The Georgia law was signed by Gov. Brian Kemp in May and was slated to go into effect in January 2020. Shortly after it passed, the law was challenged in court by the American Civil Liberties Union, SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and Planned Parenthood.
The groups claim that the law is unconstitutional and in violation of Roe v. Wade. They argued that many women don’t even know they are pregnant until after 6 weeks of pregnancy, by which time they have missed two periods. They asked for a preliminary injunction, which blocks the law while its legality is argued in court. On Tuesday, Judge Steve Jones of the US District Court for the Northern District of Georgia in Atlanta granted it.
“Plaintiffs have ... shown that, absent a preliminary injunction, they will suffer irreparable harm,” Jones wrote in his order. “By banning pre-viability abortions, [the law] violates the constitutional right to privacy, which, in turn, inflicts per se irreparable harm.”
Jones went on to say that the plaintiffs are likely to succeed in having the law overturned, that blocking the law is “in the public’s interest,” and that “the injury to Plaintiffs outweighs the damage caused to the Defendants,” who in this case are Kemp, Georgia Attorney General Christopher Carr, and other Georgia officials.
Over the past few years, several versions of the Georgia law were passed in five states, including Ohio, Iowa, Kentucky, and Mississippi, and have been blocked or challenged in every case. The laws are based on template legislation written by anti-abortion organizations. The bills — referred to as “heartbeat bills” — ban abortion after a fetus’s heartbeat can be heard, typically around 6 weeks.
However, Georgia’s law goes further, adding in language that classifies a fetus as a “natural person,” and saying that when a heartbeat can be heard is when "the full value of a child begins." According to the law, this means that child tax exemptions would begin at 6 weeks of pregnancy, instead of after birth, as would child support payment obligations. (The law would require the father to pay for the “direct medical and pregnancy related expenses of the mother of the unborn child.”) The law also sets monetary damages for the “homicide of an unborn child.”
This expansion of the definition of a child could potentially open doors for even more restrictive abortion laws, and harsher charges for those who violate them. Under Georgia’s law, any doctor who performs an abortion after a fetus’s heartbeat can be heard could be punished with up to 10 years in prison.
The law contains exceptions in the case of a “medical emergency,” if the pregnancy is less than 20 weeks along or is the product of rape or incest, or if a doctor determines that the pregnancy is “not viable,” meaning the fetus is unlikely to survive.
In his decision, Jones addressed the “personhood” components of the law head-on, saying that the law brings up several complicated questions about redefining what a “natural person” is under Georgia law without being able to answer them.
The law and the legal team defending it “failed to address” what the law would mean for “any other medical procedure which has [the] potential to adversely affect a patient’s pregnancy — either before or after” a fetus’s heartbeat is detectable, Jones wrote.
“These unanswered questions leave Plaintiffs unclear as to ‘whether and when clinicians could face criminal prosecution’ for providing comprehensive gynecological care, ‘including family planning, abortion, miscarriage management, hormone therapy, and cancer screening and treatment,’” Jones continued, quoting the plaintiff’s argument.
The law would change the definition of who a person is in the state of Georgia, Jones wrote, but it provides no “guidance for law enforcement or the judiciary on how to implement that change” as it applies to the many other laws it could potentially affect.
“This is a victory for people in Georgia and a reminder that these attacks on abortion access are illegal,” Talcott Camp, deputy director of the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project, said in a statement Tuesday. “Abortion is still legal in all 50 states. We won't stop fighting until we defeat all efforts to block access.”
Most of the anti-abortion groups and politicians pushing and passing these laws understand that they are unlikely to go into effect, and they are counting on the laws to be challenged and blocked in court.
The goal is to appeal these laws until they reach the Supreme Court. Since the court has two new justices appointed by President Donald Trump, anti-abortion advocates are hoping that it will take up the laws and decide in their favor, either greatly restricting abortion access throughout the country or overturning Roe v. Wade entirely, enabling the legality of abortion to be determined state by state.
Next week, the Supreme Court is expected to announce whether it plans to hear cases challenging two abortion laws out of Indiana and Louisiana. Its decision could have significant implications for the future of abortion rights.