'Heartbeat' bill signing

Gov. Brian Kemp poses for photos with state leaders and anti-abortion advocates after signing Georgia's restrictive "heartbeat" bill into law in 2019. 

ATLANTA — In the wake of controversial new abortion laws in Texas, states such as Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi are still embroiled in their own court battles against recently adopted abortion-restrictive laws. 

The U.S. Supreme Court's Sept. 1 decision denying a petition to halt the Texas law is feared to be a segue into an overturn of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that gave women the liberty to have an abortion without government intrusion; a Mississippi court filing to overturn Roe v. Wade shows that nearly 25 state attorneys general have signed on to the filing, including attorneys general from Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas.

Texas, like Georgia and Tennessee's pending new abortion laws, now prohibits abortions after six weeks; Mississippi's pending laws prohibit abortions past 15 weeks; Alabama's pending law seeks to ban abortions at any stage. Those state laws have not been enforced yet, due to active lawsuits. 

“It’s a deeply disturbing thing and of course (the Texas law) invites copycat legislation around the country,” said Andrea Young, executive director of ACLU of Georgia, which is awaiting a federal appeals court argument on Sept. 24 against Georgia’s pending abortion law, HB 481. 

HB 481 was approved in 2019 and seeks to reduce the abortion time limit from 20 weeks to six weeks. Another key component of HB 481 is that it aims to declare the fetus as a person after the six-week mark. 

“It gives legal rights to a fertilized egg,” said Georgia Rep. Stacey Evans during a Sept. 9 panel hosted by Georgia Women in the News, a group with a mission of getting more women into elected positions. “Once that fertilized egg has rights and you’re past this six-week time, now that woman could be charged with first-degree murder.”

Evans noted further legal implications that women may possibly argue under HB 481, including the woman then being able to claim the fetus as a child on tax returns, receiving child support for the fetus and pregnant inmates being eligible for release due to the rights of the unborn child.

Anti-abortion activists have argued that a fetal heartbeat can be detected at six weeks, declaring the fetus a human at that point; however, Georgia state Sen. Michell Au, an anesthesiologist for Emory Healthcare, argues against the heartbeat debate, stating that activity detected on an ultrasound at six weeks of pregnancy is the action of electrically active cells that later shape into a heart and other organs. 

“(Heartbeat) is language that is designed to provoke emotion,” Au said. “That’s why (anti-abortion supporters) use words like baby or fetus because it provokes a different type of response than the word embryo which is actually correct, and which is actually what a six-week-pregnancy produces. It’s an emotional picture that’s being painted, not a scientific one.”

A key concern of pro-abortion activists is the length of time it may take for most women to know that they are pregnant, putting teens and victims of incest or rape at risk. 

Day zero of pregnancy would be the first day of the woman’s last menstrual cycle, explained Au. At four weeks, assuming a 28-day menstrual cycle which many women don’t have, would be the first day of one’s missed period.

“Two weeks after that, the earliest possible pregnancy test gets us to six weeks,” she said. “That is to say it’s not at all surprising, many women would not even think or know that they’re pregnant at the time that this timeline would elapse under the Texas law.” 

“And when I think about the timing. ... If you’re a young girl, you’re not looking to get pregnant, you’re not charting out your cycles, you find out when you find out. It could be well beyond six weeks when they figure it out,” said Evans, a lawyer who referenced her experience representing children in abortion cases. 

Georgia has parental notification laws for girls younger than 18, except if determined by a judge that children are informed enough to make their own decision in their best interest.

Many anti-abortion supporters have argued that abortions are unsafe and the strict abortion laws protect women from their potentially harmful decisions; Au, however, referenced a 2014 study in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology that found the risk of death associated with childbirth to be four times higher than that of legal abortion.

“Pretending that forced childbirth is safer for women than legal abortion is laughable,” said Au, noting medical abortions (used at prior to 10 weeks) presents something of a higher complication rate than surgical abortions, though complications for abortions, in general, are low or non-life-treating.

Having went through pregnancy complications and miscarriages herself, Georgia state Sen. Jen Jordan, who is also a candidate for Georgia’s attorney general seat in 2022, said Georgia’s 2019 abortion law sparked her desire to run for attorney general. 

“We’ve seen a real attack on people's individual rights ... whether we’re talking about voting rights, reproductive rights and specifically on laws targeting women and people of color," she said. "One of the reasons I decided to run came from HB 481 because the role of the AG is to represent the people of this state, (not partisan politics)."

Jordan said the most disturbing component of the new Texas law — which does not provide considerations in the case of rape or incest — is that it gives private citizens the right to enforce it by bringing civil lawsuits against someone who helps a woman get an abortion. 

“People can assume a women had an abortion (if they had a miscarriage),” Jordan said. “(The lawsuits are) incentivized because not only do they get paid, their attorney fees are also paid for as well.”

Successful cases could result in at least $10,000 for the person bringing the lawsuit. 

Lawsuits against Georgia’s HB 481 began in June 2019 and an injunction has been issued in the case since then. 

“We hope that it stays enjoined long enough for the case to go away of completely and be scrapped off the books,” Evans said. “It’s a very scary situation especially in light of what we see with the Texas case.”

With anti-abortion legislation, clinics have began closing in recent years; FDA changed regulations this year that medical abortions can be carried out via telemedicine and meds can be sent in mail. 

“This is going to be an important tool looking forward for continued access to safe abortion practices as Republican legislators continue their attacks on women health care,” Au said.

Alabama 

A restrictive abortion law passed in Alabama in 2019 but is also not in effect due to a preliminary injunction. The law passed in 2019 seeks to ban all abortions in the state, no matter the stage of pregnancy, or with no consideration of cases involving rape or incest. It would be a felony for doctors to perform an abortion.

Currently abortions are not allowed in the state after 22 weeks. 

Tennessee

New abortion laws in Tennessee, passed by state legislators in 2020, have been in preliminary injunction since February this year. The pending law would prohibit abortions after six weeks, and makes it a felony for those who perform the abortion after a heartbeat is detected. Abortions are also not allowed for minors in Department of Children's Services.

Mississippi 

Mississippi's 15-week abortion ban laws are expected to be argued in federal court beginning next month. The state currently doesn't allow abortions after 20 weeks. Abortion activists there are concerned that Texas' new law will cross over into Mississippi.

"We know that what starts in Texas doesn't stop there, just as what starts in Mississippi impacts the nation," Mississippi Abortion Access Coalition released in a statement. "Texas recycled this abortion ban from others and the individual enforcement mechanism here could easily spread to other states during future legislative sessions. Member organizations are monitoring the legislature for similar actions in our state." 

“My hope is that seeing this bill in Texas and other bills that are trying to pass in other states will galvanize more people to get involved,” Au said. “We need more people with science backgrounds to get involved and people who can actually get pregnant to get involved.”

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