ACLU to argue against anti-abortion law in Atlanta federal court today

Georgia and three other states argue in a  U.S. Supreme Court brief that the justices should uphold Louisiana's strict anti-abortion law. Last year at the Georgia Capitol, people protested the anti-abortion "heartbeat" bill, which is now blocked by a federal judge. Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

Oral arguments in a lawsuit seeking to stop a controversial law banning most abortions in Georgia from being implemented start Monday morning in federal court in Atlanta. The law, which would prohibit nearly all abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected, would take effect on Jan. 1 without a preliminary injunction.

A host of abortion rights plaintiffs, led by the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood, want Judge Steve Jones of the District Court of the Northern District of Georgia to sideline the law, claiming it would violate constitutional due-process rights to privacy and to terminate a pregnancy. They are suing Gov. Brian Kemp, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, state Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey and several county district attorneys, some of whom have said they will not enforce the law.

Attorneys representing Kemp and other state officials denied those constitutional claims in an Aug. 19 court motion, saying the law aims to promote maternal health, medical ethics and “the State’s interests in protecting the life of the unborn.” Most abortions would be banned after six weeks under the new law, which stems from a contentious piece of legislation Kemp signed in March that drew fierce debate at the state Capitol and mirrored prohibitive measures that several other state governors signed this year.

The judge is set to decide whether to grant a temporary injunction to halt the abortion ban at the hearing scheduled start Monday at 10 a.m.

Aside from decrying abortion bans overall, the lawsuit argues the Georgia measure’s exceptions for a later abortion would be too narrow.

Current state law allows an abortion until 20 weeks into a pregnancy, and the new law would only allow a later abortion if the mother’s life is at risk, the fetus is medically futile or in the case of sexual assault or incest, if a police report is filed.

Put together, those restrictions would compel women to carry through with pregnancies against their will and in violation of the law, said Sean Young, the legal director of the ACLU’s Georgia branch.

“Forcing women to give birth against their will violates their rights,” Young said by phone last week. “And when the government passes a law that violates the constitution, it is the court’s duty to shut that law down.”

State Rep. Ed Setzler, an Acworth Republican who sponsored the bill, did not respond to phone and email requests through his office last week for comment on Monday’s court hearing.

The lawsuit, filed in late June, also argues the abortion ban would hit rural communities and black Georgians with low incomes especially hard, since they tend to have less means to access treatment for pregnancy-related health issues. Black women are 3.3 times more likely to die of pregnancy-related complications than their white counterparts, according to a recent study from a state-created review committee.

Monica Simpson, executive director of SisterSong, which is the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit challenging Georgia’s anti-abortion law, talks about maternal mortality at a press conference held Friday. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

In turn, the law could pose more harm to a woman’s health than having an abortion, said Monica Simpson, the executive director for the Atlanta-based nonprofit SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, which is a lead plaintiff in the suit.

“We’re painting a very bleak picture for women, and especially women of color, in the state of Georgia,” Simpson said last week. “This is not something that the people have asked for, this is not something that the people of Georgia need.”

Supporters of the ban, however, contend many Georgians very much want it to become state law and confer personhood on fetuses, which has long been an anti-abortion tenet. A court challenge was expected, said Virginia Galloway, the Georgia-based regional director for the conservative nonprofit Faith and Freedom Coalition.

“It’s just a matter of right and wrong,” Galloway said last week. “Protecting innocent life is the goal, and it’s just tragic for many of us that they are put to death in the name of rights.”

Federal judges in other states, including Mississippi and Ohio, have already issued preliminary injunctions against similar abortion bans in recent months. It’s unclear when the judge will issue his ruling on a preliminary injunction or if he will hear arguments on a permanent injunction before the law’s Jan. 1 effective date.

Beau Evans
Beau Evans has covered local and state government and breaking news in New Orleans and California. He’s reported on immigration issues, the threat of rising seas to coastal areas, public safety and hurricanes. At The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Evans detailed the critical role government plays to ensure that people in a community have access to clean water and other public needs. In 2018, his investigative reporting revealed top officials at New Orleans’ cash-poor water utility dealt themselves huge raises, prompting several to resign. Evans’ prior reporting was in West Marin north of San Francisco for The Point Reyes Light. Evans is an Atlanta native who graduated with honors from The Lovett School and is an honors graduate of North Carolina’s Davidson College. Beau was with the Georgia Recorder until January 4th, 2020.

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