Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia signed one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the nation Tuesday, effectively banning abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, when doctors can usually start detecting a fetal heartbeat.
Georgia is the fourth state to enact a so-called fetal heartbeat law this year. Like in other states, it is expected to face a swift legal challenge, which supporters hope will lead to a re-evaluation by the U.S. Supreme Court of the landmark 1973 ruling that made abortion legal nationwide.
Kemp, a Republican, said in a signing ceremony at the state Capitol that his administration is prepared for a court fight.
“Our job is to do what is right, not what is easy,” he said. “We are called to be strong and courageous, and we will not back down.”
The Georgia legislation is but the latest front in a wide-ranging battle over abortion rights being waged this year across Republican-controlled state legislatures in the Midwest and South. Conservative lawmakers see the realignment of the Supreme Court as presenting their best opportunity to overturn Roe v. Wade, the case that recognized a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion.
How will this new law affect Georgia?
The Georgia law, which would take effect in 2020, prohibits most abortions once doctors can discern a fetal heartbeat, a milestone that occurs before some women know they are pregnant. In practice, the limit on abortion in Georgia will now be six weeks of pregnancy, instead of 20 weeks.
Exceptions are allowed to prevent death or serious harm to the woman, and in cases of rape or incest in which a police report has been filed.
Kemp was narrowly elected in November, and the bill he signed Tuesday was seen as crucial in maintaining the conservative support that led him into the governor’s office. Kemp and the law’s other supporters have brushed aside the risks of any political backlash.
“This is a historic day for Georgia,” Catherine Davis, an anti-abortion rights activist, said at Kemp’s signing ceremony. “This is a day that many of us who have been in the pro-life fight for years and years and years didn’t really think it would be possible, in light of the politics of the issue.”
The law’s critics said that they intend to target Republicans for defeat, especially those from the demographically shifting northern suburbs of Atlanta who supported the bill in the General Assembly.
“Georgians will fight back in the courtroom and at the ballot box & win,” Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee for governor in 2018, said in a tweet Monday.
What are other states doing?
Governors in Kentucky, Mississippi and Ohio signed bills similar to Georgia’s this year. They have not gone unchallenged: A federal judge is expected to hear a challenge to the Mississippi law later this month, and a judge in Kentucky blocked the law there.
Similar measures in Iowa and North Dakota have been found unconstitutional.
Lawmakers in South Carolina and Tennessee have pressed for fetal heartbeat bills of their own, and in Arkansas, the state government narrowed the time frame in which women can have abortions.
Alabama is considering a different tack. Under a bill approved by the state House of Representatives last month, doctors would face up to 99 years in prison for performing an abortion in most instances. If a state Senate committee approves the measure, which does not currently include any exemptions for rape or incest, at a hearing Wednesday, the full chamber could consider it as soon as Thursday.
Supporters of abortion rights, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have vowed to challenge the Georgia law in court.
Elisabeth Smith, chief counsel at the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement Tuesday that the law was “bafflingly unconstitutional.” The Supreme Court has recognized a woman’s right to an abortion until about 24 weeks into a pregnancy, the time when a fetus becomes viable outside the womb.
“Bans like this have always been blocked by courts,” said Smith, whose group has challenged the Mississippi abortion law. “We will be suing Georgia to make sure this law has the same fate.”
Alabama’s law, if passed, would ban abortion outright, setting up perhaps the most direct conflict for the Supreme Court, which has become more conservative since the appointment of Justice Brett Kavanaugh last year.
“House Bill 314 goes directly after Roe,” state Rep. Rich Wingo, one of the Alabama bill’s supporters, said in an interview. “We’re trying to keep the bill as clean and as direct so there’s not any ambiguity.”
In the meantime, the Supreme Court, which in February temporarily blocked a Louisiana law that critics said would limit access to abortion, is considering whether to hear a challenge to that statute.