Court ruling against Georgia’s anti-abortion law roils election year

A federal court judge Monday threw out Georgia's strict "heartbeat" law, which now appears headed for an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The anti-abortion law narrowly passed by two votes in the 2019 legislative session after a bitter and emotionally charged debate that brought protesters to the Gold Dome. Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

A federal judge’s decision to throw out Georgia’s controversial anti-abortion law has set the stage for an appeal and reignited the fiery debate over women’s reproductive rights in an election year.

U.S. Judge Steve C. Jones of the Georgia Northern District Court issued his opinion Monday rejecting the law as unconstitutional and prohibiting state officials from enforcing it. The so-called “heartbeat” bill would have banned most abortions after six weeks, which is before many women know they are pregnant.

“As this ban directly conflicts with binding Supreme Court precedent … and thereby infringes upon a woman’s constitutional right to obtain an abortion prior to viability, the Court is left with no other choice but to declare it unconstitutional,” Jones wrote in a 67-page opinion.

Jones struck down the entire law, including a proposed tax break for expecting parents and a requirement for the father to pay child support for medical and pregnancy-related expenses.

Georgia’s law was part of a wave of anti-abortion state laws aimed at overturning the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade, which established a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion before a fetus is able to survive on its own.

The nation’s highest court recently struck down Louisiana’s abortion restrictions. Another judge also blocked Tennessee’s anti-abortion law Monday.

The challenge to Georgia’s law came from the non-profit SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, three doctors and other reproductive care providers who are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia.

“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. This case has always been about one thing: letting her decide,” Sean J. Young, legal director of the ACLU of Georgia, said Monday.

“It is now up to the State to decide whether to appeal this decision and prolong this lawsuit,” Young added.

The answer to whether the state would continue to defend the law came quickly: Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who signed the measure into law last May, said he plans to appeal. The case would go to the U.S. Court of Appeals.

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

Joshua Edmonds, executive director of the anti-abortion Georgia Life Alliance, said “today’s ruling is a tragic and tone-deaf symbol that our culture still has much work to do to establish liberty and justice for all.”

“We will appeal this attempt to turn back the clock on human rights and continue to fight for a culture that protects life regardless of age, race, gender, or ability,” Edmonds said.

Abortion rights advocates, meanwhile, cheered the decision while bracing for the next phase of the legal challenge.

“This win is tremendous, and it is also makes a very bold statement,” said Monica Simpson, executive director SisterSong, a reproductive justice organization. “No one should have to live in a world where their bodies and reproductive decision making is controlled by the state. And we will continue to work to make sure that is never a reality in Georgia or anywhere else.”

Staci Fox, president of CEO of Planned Parenthood Southeast, which is also a plaintiff in the case, said state leaders should be focused on expanded access to health care – not restricting it.

“We celebrate this victory, but we know the fight is far from over,” Fox said. “We will not back down until access to health care — including safe, legal abortion — is recognized as a basic human right.”

Jones’ decision leaves the state’s previous abortion law in effect – at least for now. State law prohibits abortions after 20 weeks.

Georgia’s embattled anti-abortion law – which would have banned the procedure with limited exceptions after fetal cardiac activity could be detected – has never taken effect.

Jones said the groups suing the state were “likely to succeed” in having the law thrown out when he temporarily blocked the law from taking effect last October. As passed in last year’s legislative session, the new abortion restrictions were intended to take effect in January.

The anti-abortion law narrowly passed by two votes in the 2019 legislative session after a bitter and emotionally charged debate that brought protesters to the Gold Dome. Opponents have vowed ever since to avenge the vote at the polls.

“Republicans have made it clear that they will always put extreme partisan interests over our fundamental freedoms — this fight is not over until we replace them in November,” said state Sen. Nikema Williams, who chairs the Democratic Party of Georgia.