The Georgia legislature succeeded in passing the most restrictive law governing access to abortion in the country on March 29, defying the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. Its sponsor, Republican Rep. Ed Setzler, claimed that a heartbeat could be detected at six weeks of pregnancy and therefore the state of Georgia was obligated to protect its human life.
The law, coined the “heartbeat bill,” criminalizes abortions after six weeks, before in fact most people are even aware they are pregnant. The current legal timeframe for an elective abortion in the state is 20 weeks. Supreme Court decisions have followed the standard of the viability of a fetus outside the womb as the establishment of human life.
Setzler’s bill goes much further by allowing a fetus to be declared a legal “dependent” on state tax returns and to be counted in the state’s population census. This establishment of an embryo as a person entitled to all constitutional rights has long been an aim of the anti-abortion movement.
Despite all medical science presented by OB-GYN doctors denouncing the notion that a six-week-old fetus, the size of a fingernail, had a functioning heart that was beating, the Republican, male-dominated Georgia General Assembly determined that the government, not pregnant people in consultation with their families or doctors, would decide their reproductive lives.
The law does provide exemptions if a pregnant person’s life is in danger, if the fetus is determined to be nonviable and in cases of rape or incest, but only if a police report is filed.
Hundreds of people of all ages and backgrounds, medical doctors, scientists and business leaders filled the legislative halls and meeting rooms for weeks in an attempt to stop this piece of misogynist interference from passing both chambers of the Assembly.
Dozens of women donned the red cloaks and dresses and the white headpieces worn by the handmaids in the novel “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which is set in a future authoritarian U.S. society where women’s only role is to produce children. They lined the entrance to the building and the hallways for weeks, an ever-present reminder of the fundamental religious and backward social politics of the legislation.
Women legislators stood and turned their backs when Setzler first introduced the bill in the House. They earned the wrath of the Republican Speaker of the House, who decried their “disrespectful” actions and promised “disciplinary” action.
Advocates for reproductive rights proposed that these elected officials turn their attention to Georgia’s woeful position as the leading U.S. state in maternal deaths, with Black women three times more likely to die in childbirth than white women. More than half of Georgia’s counties do not even have an OB-GYN practicing medicine there, and 64 counties do not have a pediatrician.
Plus, rural hospitals are closing at an alarming rate because many of their patients lack insurance of any kind. It’s predicted that there will be an even greater rise in pregnant people’s deaths if a legal, safe abortion cannot be performed by a doctor. The use of “home” remedies and unlicensed back-alley abortionists, prevalent prior to Roe v. Wade, will once again flourish to meet the needs of poor and working women especially.
On March 29, the final passage was barely secured in the House of Representatives. With 91 yes votes needed, the final count was 92 to 78. Gov. Brian Kemp is guaranteed to sign the bill into law soon, as he had vowed to enact the “most restrictive anti-abortion law” in the country while running for office.
The law will not go into effect until Jan. 1, 2020, and the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood have both announced that they will file suit to prevent it. Federal courts have overturned similar “heartbeat” laws in Kentucky, Mississippi and, just this past week, North Carolina.
Generations of women have struggled for the right to control their own bodies, to be able to decide if and when they will choose to have children and with whom or on their own. This fight in Georgia and the nation will not be over until this right is secured for all.