Georgia’s anti-abortion law on hold after Atlanta federal judge’s ruling

Susan Talcott Camp, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, speaks outside Atlanta's federal court building alongside plaintiffs and other attorneys after last week's hearing on the state's strict anti-abortion law. Beau Evans, Georgia Recorder

Updated at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday

A federal judge issued a preliminary injunction Tuesday in Atlanta that blocks Georgia’s strict new anti-abortion law from taking effect Jan. 1.

Judge Steve Jones, of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, issued his ruling Tuesday, putting a halt to the law while a court challenge likely proceeds. The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, representing several abortion rights groups suing the state, has argued the law that bans most abortions after six weeks violates a woman’s constitutional right to abortion.

Jones wrote that those groups suing the state are “likely to succeed” in having the law struck down as unconstitutional during a full trial.

Jones has yet to set a date for a trial to determine whether to issue a permanent injunction against the law. Under the preliminary injunction, the law will remain blocked until after Jones rules on the permanent injunction, which likely means it won’t take effect Jan. 1 as scheduled.

The judge wrote the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld its precedent set in Roe v. Wade saying a state may not ban abortion before life is viable.

“What is clearly defined, however, is that under no circumstances whatsoever may a State prohibit or ban abortions at any point prior to viability, no matter what interests the State asserts to support it,” Jones said. 

Opponents of the law hailed Tuesday’s ruling as a win for women’s rights.

“This case has always been about one thing: Letting her decide,” Sean Young, the legal director of the ACLU’s Georgia branch, said in a statement. “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but every woman is entitled to her own decision.”

Gov. Brian Kemp’s office said through Communications Director Candice Broce it is reviewing Jones’s ruling and still evaluating options. Attorney General Chris Carr’s office said after the governor signed the bill into law in May that its job is to defend the it in court.

“Despite today’s outcome, we remain confident in our position,” Broce said in an email. “We will continue to fight for the unborn and work to ensure that all Georgians have the opportunity to live, grow and prosper.”

The law stems from legislation state lawmakers passed last spring and Kemp signed soon after. It bans most abortions once a fetal heartbeat can be detected – about six weeks into a pregnancy, or before many women know they are pregnant. The bill drew fierce debate at the state Capitol during the 2019 Georgia General Assembly and has been characterized as one of the most restrictive abortion measures in the country.

A host of abortion rights plaintiffs, led by the nonprofit SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective and Planned Parenthood, filed suit in late June to stop the “heartbeat” law from taking effect in Georgia on Jan.1. They claimed the law would violate constitutional due-process rights to privacy and to terminate a pregnancy.

At last week’s court hearing, ACLU attorneys argued prohibiting abortions after six weeks would run counter to Roe V. Wade, which established that abortions should be permitted before a fetus reaches the “point of viability” between 24 to 28 weeks into a pregnancy. Attorneys for the state argued the law would not create an outright ban since it allows abortions before a heartbeat can be detected and in limited exceptions like medical emergencies.

Jones’s ruling follows preliminary injunctions federal judges issued in recent months against similar anti-abortion laws other states passed, including Mississippi, Kentucky, Arkansas, Ohio and Utah.

Local abortion rights advocates in Georgia applauded Jones’s ruling Tuesday and expressed hope that the temporary relief will become permanent. Among them was SisterSong’s executive director, Monica Simpson, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit.

“Ultimately, this is for us what reproductive justice is about,” Simpson said Tuesday. “It’s about centering our needs and being able to make decisions for ourselves.” 

State Rep. Ed Setzler, the bill’s Republican sponsor from Acworth, said Wednesday that he thinks the state has a good shot at prevailing in a full trial with more time to present evidence and lay out arguments in favor of the law.
“If this is the opening kickoff, the ACLU of Georgia is high-fiving that they didn’t fumble the ball in their own end zone,” Setzler said by phone Wednesday. “We look forward to the substantive discussions in court where we lay out the rock-solid scientific and legal provisions of our bill.”

Prominent voices on both sides of the controversy took to social media after the ruling.

From the disappointed:

To those who felt vindicated:

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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