“Well, we can take Emory off the list,” my husband said to me last week when I told him about HB 481, the new anti-abortion law that is set to go in effect in Georgia in 2020. We had been discussing universities our 16-year-old daughter might apply to in a couple of years, when she’s a high-school senior. Although we have very different ideas about college, we agree on one thing: We can’t send our daughter to live in a state that would strip her of her autonomy to make her own medical decisions.
What’s in HB 481? Signed into law by Governor Brian Kemp, it criminalizes abortion when a fetal heartbeat can be detected, usually at six weeks of gestation. Because it relies exclusively on the heartbeat as a defining marker of human life, HB 481 reclassifies embryos as “unborn children” who are entitled to “full legal recognition,” including the right to be counted as a dependent and to receive child support for medical expenses. The law allows for a few exceptions, including in cases of rape or incest, but only if a police report has been filed first. In all other cases, aborting an embryo past six weeks of gestation, whether willfully or negligently, becomes a homicide, for which the assisting physician or medical professional is criminally liable.
The official name of HB 481 is the Living Infants Fairness and Equality Act, but it does not apply to living infants and, in my view, will result in neither fairness nor equality for anyone else. Medical science distinguishes between embryos, fetuses, and infants, with different milestones for each stage. A heartbeat alone does not mean a baby has developed, because vaginal ultrasounds detect flickers of activity before the heart is fully formed. Some women may not even know they’re pregnant at six weeks of gestation, which means that HB 481 deprives women and couples of the time necessary to seek medical consultation, think through options, and make fully informed medical decisions.
The Georgia anti-abortion law also has severe implications for racial and class justice. The Life Act was sponsored by six state representatives, all of whom are white; three of the six are women. But the law will affect communities of color the most. Black and Hispanic women seek the procedure at higher rates than white women, and almost half of abortions are sought by women who live below the poverty line. Forcing poor women to have babies—without providing free birth control, free pre- and postnatal care, paid family leave, universal child care, and other policies that truly support life—is nothing but a new form of racist and sexist social control.
Even the exceptions that the law makes for rape and incest will end up harming girls and women by adding traumatic, unnecessary steps to obtaining an abortion. Imagine, for instance, a 14-year-old girl who was raped and impregnated by a family member. Noticing the changes in her body, she finally gathers the courage to tell an adult, perhaps one of her parents—only to be forced to file a police report and face prosecutors before she can end her pregnancy. Ultimately, HB 481 discourages victims of sexual abuse from coming forward: It takes away their right to decide whether and when to share their trauma in a public setting.
The Georgia bill has attracted significant notice, but it is by no means unique. At least two other states have passed so-called heartbeat bills: Mississippi in March and Ohio in April. Governor Kay Ivey just signed a bill outlawing abortion in Alabama, with no exception for rape or incest. There is rapidly building momentum in GOP-controlled state legislatures on this issue, with the goal of getting it to the Supreme Court. In fact, Georgia State Representative Ed Setzler, one of the sponsors of HB 481, admitted as much when he told reporters, “We’ve laid the groundwork that, should it make it to the Supreme Court, I think it’s going to find a very favorable reception.” With Justice Brett Kavanaugh on the bench, anti-choice activists clearly feel that their time has come.
The backlash against HB 481 has prompted several film-production companies—Duplass Brothers Productions, Killer Films, and David Simon’s Blown Deadline—to announce they will no longer use the state as a filming location. In the past, such boycotts had an impact. Two years ago, North Carolina was forced to rescind its anti-trans bathroom law after artists, sports leagues, and businesses canceled deals, costing the state billions of dollars in revenue. (That law was replaced by another that allowed transgender people to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity but deprived them of recourse if they were ejected by a business.) But I’m not convinced a boycott is the most effective way to fight HB 481. For one, it won’t hurt the law’s wealthy and middle-class supporters, who can afford to travel quietly to get abortions in another state. Poor women won’t have that option. And there are other states that have restrictive abortion bills, which means a principled stand would have to include them, too.
Because HB 481 won’t go into effect until January 2020, however, we have time to organize against it. The ACLU and Planned Parenthood have said they plan to challenge the law in court. Georgia clinics that are currently providing the procedure could use donations.
For now, what is clear to me is that the women of Georgia are in this position because the state legislature and the governorship are controlled by the GOP. Three of the law’s Republican sponsors—Ginny Ehrhart, Darlene Taylor, and Setzler—faced Democratic challengers in November 2018, but the other three—Jodi Lott, Micah Gravley, and Josh Bonner—ran unopposed. In other words, a small minority in power has managed to dictate reproductive rights for the majority. These are some of the statehouse races we can work to flip in 2020 and beyond.
A lot of attention goes to the presidential race, but nothing will change on the ground for women, especially poor women and women of color, until there is a change in statehouses.