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Georgia's Abortion Bill Matches Trend Toward More Restrictions


Georgia lawmakers have sent a bill banning abortion as soon as a heartbeat can be detected to the desk of Republican Gov. Brian Kemp. The legislation is part of a larger trend this year, with many state legislatures taking steps towards banning the procedure early in pregnancy. NPR's Sarah McCammon covers the abortion debate and has been following this story. She joins us now.



GARCIA-NAVARRO: So, Sarah, tell us more about this bill. How would it change abortion law in Georgia?

MCCAMMON: So this is what supporters call a heartbeat bill and what critics call a six-week ban. But either way, Lulu, it would ban abortion after a heartbeat can be found. That's usually around six or seven weeks. It's still during the embryonic stage of pregnancy and, to be clear, a point when a lot of women may not know they're pregnant. They may not have even realized they missed a period that early on. This bill in Georgia also describes a pregnancy at that stage - at any stage, really, that a heartbeat can be found - as a person, which is language that concerns abortion rights advocates. Here's Ed Setzler, a Republican from metro Atlanta who sponsored the bill, speaking on the Georgia House floor earlier this month.


ED SETZLER: We recognize the preciousness of human life. And what HB 481 does - it seeks to recognize that the child in the womb that is living distinct from their mother has a right of life that's worthy of protection. I think we can all - we should all be able to agree on that. It shouldn't be a partisan issue that a child in the womb should be worthy of full legal protection.

MCCAMMON: And there are a few exceptions for things like medical emergencies and for rape and incest but only if the victim files a police report in that case, which sometimes doesn't happen for a variety of reasons. Abortion rights advocates are quick to point out that for a lot of women, this kind of legislation would effectively ban abortion most of the time. And I should mention a group of influential businesses have opposed the bill, saying it would take the state in the wrong direction.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is this bill an outlier? How many states are looking at this kind of legislation now?

MCCAMMON: It is really a trend this year. And it's part of a larger back-and-forth struggle in state legislatures over abortion rights that's been set off by the confirmation of Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh. So Georgia is now the third state to pass a bill banning abortion after a heartbeat can be detected. The Guttmacher Institute, which supports abortion rights, has documented a 63 percent increase in this kind of legislation compared to last year. Planned Parenthood's president Dr. Leana Wen raised the alarm about that during a conference call with reporters this past week.


LEANA WEN: Access to abortion care, which is standard medical care, is disappearing in many states. What we are seeing is that politicians are directly interfering with medical practice and endangering women's lives.

MCCAMMON: And, Lulu, this isn't a completely new idea. A similar law banning abortions after a heartbeat is detectable passed in Iowa last year, but that ban was thrown out in state court as unconstitutional.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right. And I guess that must be the big question. Are these bans on abortion as early as six weeks likely to stand up in the courts?

MCCAMMON: I mean, historically, the answer would have been pretty clearly no. The 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide made it pretty clear that women have a right to abortion in the United States, especially early in pregnancy. And previous courts have tended to strike down state laws that were seen as putting an undue burden on that right. And it's important to say that none of the six-week bans that have passed so far are in effect and legal challenges are underway. But abortion rights opponents are pushing a slate of bills like these, hoping one of them will make it up to the Supreme Court.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you mentioned the larger fight over abortion in state legislatures. What else should we be watching?

MCCAMMON: Well, there is a lot of legislation moving through statehouses this year on this subject. Several states have passed or are considering what are known as trigger bans, which would automatically ban abortion if Roe v. Wade falls. On the other side, abortion rights supporters are pushing their own state legislation. There are efforts to decriminalize abortion or guarantee the right to the procedure in state law. But it's an issue that Republicans all the way up to the president have vowed to make an issue in the campaign in 2020. And we are likely to keep hearing these debates in state legislatures, in Congress, in the courts and in political campaigns for many months to come.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's Sarah McCammon. Thank you so much.

MCCAMMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.