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Georgia's controversial 'heartbeat' abortion law struck down in federal court

This sets the stage for the case to head to the U.S. Supreme Court.

ATLANTA — A federal district court has struck down the state's controversial "heartbeat" abortion law, which it said runs in direct conflict with the Supreme Court's landmark Roe v. Wade decision.

Shortly after Gov. Brian Kemp signed the law in May 2019, the ACLU filed suit. The restrictive law banned abortions after a fetal heartbeat had been detected, usually around the six-week point. 

According to the district court, "The hallmark of the Supreme Court's abortion jurisprudence is Roe v. Wade, wherein the Court held that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment provides a fundamental constitutional right of access to abortions."

Monday's ruling by US District Court Judge Steve Jones replaces an earlier temporary injunction by Jones from last October, which had prevented the law from taking effect in January 2020.

The new ruling permanently enjoins the state from ever enforcing the law. 

The case will likely head to the 11th Circuit court in front of a three-judge panel.

This is the next step in heading towards the United States Supreme Court, which many people have predicted it will spearhead the discussion of the Roe v. Wade decision by the high court.

Kemp's office gave a terse response to the ruling Monday afternoon, saying, "We will appeal the Court’s decision. Georgia values life, and we will keep fighting for the rights of the unborn.”

Suzanne Guy, a pro-life advocate who supported the bill during the 2019 legislative session, applauds the governor's reaction. 

“Pre-born children deserve rights and privileges and protections because they are persons. We need to do a better job for women who find themselves in an unwanted or unplanned pregnancy. We as a nation need to have better systems in place to walk alongside them, to help empower them, to either parent or give their child up for adoption.”

Guy said she was heartbroken to learn about the law being struck down, and added the bill was the only way to safeguard unborn children's lives. 

“Those children deserve to be protected under the law, the way any human being deserves to be protected under our laws and our legislation," Guy said. “We need to stop targeting those very real persons inside the womb.”

But, Tamara Stevens, a pro-choice advocate, applauded the federal judge's ruling.

“Women deserve autonomy over our bodies. It’s not something that should ever be legislated by a bunch of men under the Gold Dome.”

Stevens is a part of the Handmaid Coalition, a grassroots organization born out of the 2019 legislative session surrounding the bill. The group is known to wear costumes similar to the uniforms worn in the popular dystopian drama, A Handmaid's Tale. 

She objected to Kemp's planned appeal, calling it a waste of taxpayer dollars. 

“Anyone with a basic understanding of the Constitution would recognize that the way that the law was written and passed, it was completely unconstitutional," Stevens said.

Monica Simpson, executive director of Atlanta-based SisterSong, the organization that brought the lawsuit against the governor and the state, was jubilant. 

"As a reproductive justice organization based in Georgia for over 20 years, SisterSong is committed to centering and amplifying the needs of those communities historically pushed to the margins. This win is tremendous, and it also makes a very bold statement," Simpson said. "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."

“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. It is now up to the State to decide whether to appeal this decision and prolong this lawsuit,” said Sean J. Young, legal director of the ACLU of Georgia.

"We said it from the start: Abortion bans like Georgia's are blatantly unconstitutional, and the courts reaffirmed that fact today," said Planned Parenthood Southeast president and CEO, Staci Fox. "While people across this state and around the country are literally dying from COVID-19 and systemic racism, our leaders should be focused on expanding access to health care — not restricting it."

“We are thrilled at this decision that confirms what we have always known to be true – that the state cannot sacrifice a person’s constitutional rights to interfere in their private health decisions regarding pregnancy," said Kwajelyn J. Jackson, executive director of Feminist Women's Health Center. "In a time when so many of us are being compelled to reassert our humanity and demand that our lives be honored, it is a relief that we can firmly say to our patients and our communities that in this moment in Georgia, abortion access is not up for debate.” 

"Georgia's law was a blatantly unconstitutional and baseless attack on abortion, and today's ruling recognized that. Georgia has one of the worst records in the country on Black maternal mortality — but instead of addressing that deadly crisis, Governor Kemp and anti-abortion politicians would apparently rather attack Georgians' reproductive freedom by passing a ban rooted in racism and misogyny," said Elizabeth Watson, staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project. "Georgians should have the right to access safe medical care whether they have decided to end a pregnancy or carry it to term, and we will always fight to make this a reality." 

“This ban and the many other abortion bans being passed across the country are part of a coordinated, national strategy to overturn Roe v. Wade. A similar abortion ban in Tennessee was blocked just earlier today. These states are hellbent on denying the women in their state bodily autonomy," said Emily Nestler, senior staff attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights. "Meanwhile, Georgia has the worst maternal mortality rate in the country. Black women in Georgia face the highest risk — they are 3.3 times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women. But instead of acting to help pregnant women, lawmakers are trying to ban abortion.”

When it was originally signed by the governor, the controversial measure was opposed by major companies in Georgia. Celebrities, along with major production companies, threatened to pull film and television projects out of the state if the governor signed the measure. 

Gov. Kemp undertook an effort to speak with film executives to bolster the state's film industry in the wake of those threats.

Simultaneously, district attorneys across metro Atlanta vowed not to prosecute women or health providers under the new law.

Last summer, Stacey Abrams took a trip to Los Angeles to speak to Hollywood executives. She told them that while she vigorously opposed the law and its enactment, removing productions from the state of Georgia and jobs from its citizens was not the way to combat it. 

Abrams encouraged the executives to keep their productions and their money in the state and fight back.

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An 11Alive News Poll conducted in November 2019 indicated that 42 percent of respondents opposed the law, while 38 percent of them supported it.

Similarly restrictive laws governing abortion have been enacted by other states, including Ohio, Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee. 

The United States Supreme Court in June 2020, struck down that state's restrictive abortion law, which required doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. 

Restrictive laws from other states are being challenged in federal court and are likely to also make their way to the Supreme Court, each with the intent of ultimately challenging Roe v. Wade.

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