“Being pregnant is hard. Being a woman is hard. And the least that we should be given is the ability to control our bodies. You can tell there aren’t a lot of women in the room when they’re talking about this kind of public policy. In 2019, that’s mind-boggling to me.”
That’s what state Sen. Jen Jordan of Georgia’s sixth Congressional district said about House Bill 481, which Republican Governor Brian Kemp signed into law Tuesday.
Sen. Jordan was right. On May 7, thanks to 30-odd men - with the notable exception of state Sen. Renee Unterman, who proposed the legislation and heralded it through the House and Senate - the Living Infants Fairness and Equality (LIFE) Act became law.
Photo: Bill Oxford on Unsplash
The so-called LIFE Act bans most abortions once what doctors identify as a “fetal heartbeat in the womb” can be detected, and while it’s a rhetorically clever bill, its contents are medically dubious at best.
A fetal heartbeat appears around six weeks into pregnancy, before most folks even know that they’re pregnant. It’s just two weeks after a missed period if their cycle is regular (but irregularity affects up to 30% of women at any time). Many healthcare providers also say that what could be perceived as a heartbeat at this stage is actually just the vibration of developing tissues, not a marker of infant viability outside of the womb. Rather, this “embryonic cardiac activity” occurs within the fetal pole, which is the beginning stage of the still-undeveloped heart.
Still, Georgia is the fourth state to pass such a restrictive law. The limit was previously set at 20 weeks into a pregnancy, but only if the individual agreed to wait 24 hours between requesting and undergoing the abortion.
Exceptions to the six-week statute will only include medical futility, potential harm to the mother, and rape or incest -- if the survivor submitted a police report, which happens just 36% of the time due to social stigma and threat of violence. Abusers and rapists are most likely to stalk, harass, or murder former partners within the first 90 days afterward, and up to 80% of survivors who do report will recant their stories due to threats from these partners.
Beyond this, there still confusion among both the anti-choice and pro-choice camps about what the bill would actually do.
Slate reported last week that anyone who obtains an abortion illegally or out of state could be sentenced to life in prison and that anyone who helps plan or transport someone to abortion care could be charged with conspiracy to commit murder. Other outlets explained this by saying that because HB 481 considers a fetus a “human being” upon detection of a natal “heartbeat,” abortion would legally count as murder. From there, reporters speculated that if a pregnancy ends in natural miscarriage, police could be legally allowed to interrogate the individual to determine whether they “caused” it by engaging in risky behaviors, such as taking drugs.
However, according to a subsequent Washington Post report, this isn’t quite the case. (And needless to say, speculation is not journalism, but that’s another story.)
They said that HB 481 isn’t clear on how women would be persecuted, focusing more on the abortion providers and that existing Georgia penal codes will legally protect women who obtain illegal (unsafe) abortions or experience miscarriage. However, they provided no other details about these codes. They did say that women who miscarry “could be pulled into an investigation looking at whether someone performed an illegal abortion on her” -- still a traumatic invasion of privacy and emotional boundaries.
According to some advocates, the fear of having bodily autonomy stripped has understandably led to some of the misinformation and unverified claims. Some folks have unnecessarily canceled abortion appointments or made frantic phone calls to providers like Planned Parenthood, worried that abortion is already illegal.
“The news headlines and social media headlines that speculate about the bills’ unintended consequences are – at the very least – not productive. At most, they’re harmful,” Planned Parenthood’s Staci Fox told The Post.
Fox apparently also said that HB 481 could not prosecute women for receiving abortions, just the providers, but this was not quoted and little information was given to support the statement. This section of the article reads: “Georgia’s law does not unequivocally say that women are exempt, but legal experts point to other areas of Georgia’s penal code which have specific defenses for women, including those who miscarry.”
Whether or not women can receive jail time, the ambiguity of HB 481 points to just one thing: that the pro-life debate is not about abortion at all. Rather, it is intended for political gain and the continued oppression of women and minorities.
Enacting one of the nation’s most extreme abortion restrictions was a significant tenant of Kemp’s platform from the start. GOP politicians hope the bills will make it to the Supreme Court to challenge Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1976 decision protecting the right to safe abortions on a federal level.
But bodily autonomy shouldn’t be up to debate, especially when it puts lives at risk. Jalessah Jackson, coordinator of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective in Atlanta, said that the LIFE Act will disproportionately affect racial-ethnic minorities and won’t address any of the state’s myriad public health problems.
“With the significant systemic barriers that women of color face in getting access to health services, it is that much harder to get into a clinic to confirm a pregnancy and talk through your options,” she said. “We see how this attack on abortion would fall hardest on people who are already struggling with health disparities.”
In Georgia, that means women of color, LGBTQIA+ folks, families living in rural poverty, and other medically marginalized groups. The red state already leads the country when it comes to maternal mortality rates, with 39.3 deaths per 100,000 live births. For Black mothers, the number climbs to 43.5 deaths.
“Instead of wasting more time undermining the bodily autonomy of women of color, our governor should be dealing with the fact that the number of people living in poverty in our state is higher than the national rate,” Jackson said. “One in three rural children in Georgia is growing up in poverty. In Georgia, more than 1.5 million people are struggling with hunger - and of them, more than 500,000 are children.”
SisterSong and other organizations have pledged to block HB 481 from taking effect in 2020, and other states have already seen similar bills get shut down.
The ACLU of Georgia promised to take Kemp to court the day he inked the legislation.
“The U.S. Supreme Court has been clear: a woman has a constitutional right to an abortion before the point of viability, and there is not a single scientist or even politician who will assert that a six-week-old embryo can survive outside of a uterus,” said Sean Young, ACLU Georgia director. “Make no mistake; this law is an abortion ban.”
Emily Rose Thorne is a junior at Mercer University and an aspiring multimedia journalist. She’s been involved with Step Up Magazine since 2017 and is now helping guide the editorial team as Senior Editor. Previously, she interned as a journalist for both Atlanta Magazine and Girls Rock Athens. She’s also served as Staff Writer, Lead News Writer and News Editor of her campus publication, The Cluster. She is currently the Digital Editor of The Cluster and a 2019 John M. Couric Fellow at the Center for Collaborative Journalism. This summer, she'll start producing audio and writing copy for Georgia Public Broadcasting in Macon.