May 4, 2022 - Politics

Georgia’s abortion law explained

A large crowd of protesters march in Downtown Atlanta in May 2019 to oppose Georgia's "heartbeat bill"
Demonstrators against Georgia's "heartbeat" abortion bill in Atlanta in 2019. Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg via Getty Images

If the landmark decision on reproductive rights does get struck down, states would decide whether to ban, limit or allow abortions.

  • SisterSong v. Kemp, a lawsuit challenging Georgia’s law, is on hold in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals pending the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision.

What does the law do: HB 481, the 2019 law, bans abortions once cardiac activity has been detected in an embryo — generally at about six weeks.

  • Abortion-rights advocates consider it an effective ban on the procedure, as some people do not know they’re pregnant at that point.
  • The bill contains exceptions if a doctor deems a pregnancy “medically futile,” and for victims of rape and incest after they’ve filed police reports — only for fetuses younger than 20 weeks old.
  • The law does not criminalize miscarriages. It exempts ​​​​“the naturally occurring death of an unborn child, including a miscarriage or stillbirth” and the removal of an ectopic pregnancy from the definition of “abortion.”

What could be next: Anthony Michael Kreis, a constitutional law professor at Georgia State University, thinks it’s likely the appeals court would decide the law is constitutional, citing the Supreme Court ruling.

  • “I think it goes into effect in a matter of hours,” Kreis tells Axios. “I do not see the federal courts letting it linger terribly long.”

The laws nickname, the “fetal heartbeat bill,” is a misnomer. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says at six weeks, a woman is carrying an embryo, not a fetus.

Plus: This law defines an embryo as a person as soon as cardiac activity is detected, which would give embryos new rights.

  • Some have argued that could have far-reaching consequences, including a mother claiming child support for an embryo, or being scrutinized and penalized for certain behavior.

Of note: At the time of the bill’s passage, proponents and opponents expected the issue would end up in the Supreme Court in some fashion.

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