Georgia Governor Brian Kemp this week signed into law HB 481, the nation’s most extreme abortion ban. The law criminalizes abortion after fetal cardiac activity can be detected, usually around six weeks. Women who undergo abortions could be prosecuted for homicide, subjecting them to the death penalty or life in prison. The doctors who work at Georgia abortion clinics could also be charged with homicide. The state’s maternal death rate continues to rise; it is more dangerous to give birth in Georgia than Iraq, Palestine, and 100 other countries. An avalanche of evidence suggests HB 481 will kill even more women.
HB 481: The Death Penalty for Abortion, Requiring Doctors to Report Patients, and More
HB 481, which will go into effect in 2020, classifies fetuses with fetal pole cardiac activity as persons under the law. This “heartbeat abortion ban” goes much further than merely banning abortion, however. It also:
- Counts fetuses in the Census.
- May make it a homicide to “kill” a fetus, since fetuses are now persons. Georgia criminalizes homicide with the death penalty or life in prison.
- May make it a criminal conspiracy to help a woman travel across state lines to get an abortion. This is because fetuses are now people, killing them is now homicide, and so traveling to commit a homicide is a crime.
- Requires physicians to report abortions. This could mean that a doctor is required to report her patient if the patient gets an out of state abortion.
Georgia has already shown a willingness to prosecute women for abortions. In 2015, a prosecutor attempted to prosecute a woman for taking Cytotec, a drug that can induce abortion.
Fetal pole cardiac activity—which is not a heartbeat—can be detected as early as 5-6 weeks gestation. This is 1-2 weeks after a woman’s missed period, before many women know they are pregnant. The law is so restrictive that Georgia’s 24-hour waiting period could delay a woman’s abortion until it becomes illegal.
The Turnaway Study, an ongoing study of women who are denied abortions because of legal restrictions, has found that their outcomes are significantly worse than outcomes for women who have abortions. Being denied an abortion increases the risk of depression, anxiety, poverty, and remaining in an abusive relationship.
Unintended Consequences of Georgia’s Abortion Ban
Classifying fetuses as persons could upend the justice system in Georgia. If fetuses are people, is it illegal to hold them in jail when their mothers commit a crime? Does a fetus have 4th Amendment rights independent of its mother? Must the fetus consent to ultrasounds, which could be classified as a search? What about property rights? Are fetuses entitled to minimum wage when their mothers work? When a police officer is sued for wrongly arresting a pregnant woman, can the fetus also sue?
It all seems so absurd because it is. People have numerous rights under the law. In addition to criminalizing thousands of women, this law could collapse into utter legal nonsense.
Georgia’s Rising Maternal Mortality Rate, and the Failure of Republicans to Care
Georgia faces an epidemic of maternal deaths. It is the most dangerous state in the U.S. in which to give birth, and the U.S. is the most dangerous place in the developed world to have a baby. Georgia’s maternal death rate is more than double the national average, and 11 times as high as maternal deaths in many European nations.
Research consistently shows that these deaths are largely the product of systemic healthcare failures—not individual lifestyle factors in women. Racism is an important factor, and Georgia’s black maternal death rate is significantly higher than its white death rate.
Most maternal deaths are preventable. Georgia is choosing to do nothing to prevent them. It has not enacted any recent legislation to slash maternal death, despite aggressive lobbying by numerous groups. The same Republican leaders who gleefully enacted this legislation ignored pleas from constituents to do something, anything, to stop maternal mortality.
This law will kill women. Their fetuses will die with them. Republicans do not care, because this has never been about protecting life.