Supporters crowd a meeting room before a roundtable discussion at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta in May 2019, to discuss abortion bans in Georgia and across the country. A federal judge is permanently blocking Georgia’s 2019 “heartbeat” abortion law, finding that it violates the U.S. Constitution. U.S. District Judge Steve Jones ruled against the state Monday, in a lawsuit filed by abortion providers and an advocacy group. (Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, File)

Federal judge voids Georgia ‘heartbeat’ abortion restriction

ATLANTA — A federal judge on Monday permanently blocked Georgia’s 2019 “heartbeat” abortion law, finding that it violates the U.S. Constitution.

U.S. District Judge Steve Jones ruled against the state in a lawsuit filed by abortion providers and an advocacy group. Jones had temporarily blocked the law in October, and it never went into effect. The new ruling permanently enjoins the state from ever enforcing House Bill 481.

Georgia’s measure sought to ban abortions once a “detectable human heartbeat” was present, with some limited exceptions. Cardiac activity can be detected by ultrasound as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, before many women realize they’re pregnant, according to a legal challenge. The bill narrowly passed the Georgia General Assembly amid intense lobbying for and against.

Those who challenged the lawsuit said the ruling proves their contention that the measure was unconstitutional. Lead plaintiff SisterSong, an Atlanta-based group that fights abortion restrictions on behalf of African American and other women of colour, called it a “huge win for bodily autonomy.”

“No one should have to live in a world where their bodies and reproductive decision making is controlled by the state,” SisterSong Executive Director Monica Simpson said in a statement.

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who has supported the restriction, immediately vowed an appeal.

“We will appeal the court’s decision,” Kemp said in a statement. “Georgia values life and we will keep fighting for the rights of the unborn.”

The prospects of an appeal are uncertain, though, considering the U.S. Supreme Court last month struck down other abortion restrictions from Louisiana.

Women in Georgia can currently seek an abortion during the first 20 weeks of a pregnancy.

Both the state and those challenging the law asked Jones to rule without a trial, saying there were no disputed facts. Jones granted the challengers’ motions for summary judgment and denied the state’s motions, finding the law violated the 14th Amendment.

“The court rejects the state defendants’ argument that the statutory purpose solely concerns “promoting fetal well-being,’” Jones wrote. “Instead, HB 481’s specific references to Roe v. Wade and ‘established abortion related precedents’ … lends support to plaintiffs’ argument that the purpose of H.B. 481 was to ban or de facto ban abortion.”

Jones refused to leave any parts of the law in effect, which would have also granted personhood to a fetus, giving it the same legal rights as people have after they’re born. For example, a mother could have claimed a fetus as a dependent to reduce taxes.

U.S. Supreme Court precedent has for nearly five decades held that states cannot ban abortion prior to the viability of a fetus, and since Georgia’s law does just that it is unconstitutional, the law’s opponents argued. The state argued that the law promoted fetal well-being. It was widely considered as one of a number of attempts to create fresh legal challenges to abortion after two new conservative justices were confirmed to the Supreme Court. The high court, by a 5-4 ruling on June 29, struck down another of those challenges involving regulations from Louisiana.

The legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, one of the groups that brought the lawsuit, said any appeal would be fruitless.

“The district court blocked Georgia’s abortion ban, because it violates over 50 years of Supreme Court precedent and fails to trust women to make their own personal decisions,” Sean Young said in a statement. “This case has always been about one thing: letting her decide. It is now up to the state to decide whether to appeal this decision and prolong this lawsuit.”

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, a Republican, said he would appeal the ruling but declined further comment.

At least eight states passed so-called heartbeat bills or other sweeping bans in 2019, including Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio and Tennessee. South Carolina is still considering one. All of the new bans joined the fate of earlier heartbeat abortion bans from Arkansas, North Dakota and Iowa in being at least temporarily blocked by judges. Louisiana’s ban wouldn’t take effect unless a court upholds Mississippi’s law.

In a separate ruling Monday, a U.S. district judge in Tennessee blocked a Tennessee law that Republican Gov. Bill had signed hours earlier banning an abortion as early as six weeks into pregnancy and prohibiting abortions based on race, sex or diagnosis of Down syndrome.

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