If other legal challenges fail, most abortion care will effectively be outlawed across the South
A federal appeals court has overturned a lower-court ruling and upheld Georgia’s law that ban abortions at about six weeks of pregnancy, before many people know they are pregnant, or only about two weeks after a missed period.
The decision from a three-judge panel on 20 July cites the US Supreme Court’s recent decision in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization – which struck down Roe v Wade and revoked the constitutional right to abortion care – to declare that “no right to abortion exists under the Constitution, so Georgia may prohibit them”.
The 11th Circuit court’s decision also rejected arguments that the law’s “personhood” statute – which asserts that fetuses, embryos and fertilized eggs have full protections under the law – is constitutionally vague.
Georgia’s law – which outlaws abortion care after detection of a fetal “heartbeat”, a misleading term used by anti-abortion activists to describe embryonic electrical activity at about six weeks – only makes exceptions for rape and incest if a police report has been filed.
The court’s decision follows a legal challenge from abortion rights advocates, providers and reproductive health groups, which warned that the law will place Georgia among states across the South denying legal abortion care to millions of people.
Those patients will be “forced to travel hundreds of miles to access essential health care if they have the means to do so, or forced to carry their pregnancies to term and give birth against their will,” Center for Reproductive Rights staff attorney Alice Wang said in a statement.
“Doctors will be forced to choose between providing time-sensitive, medically necessary care and risking criminal prosecution,” she said.
In an unusual move, the court also issued an immediate stay of a lower court’s injunction on Georgia’s law, meaning the six-week ban takes effect immediately.
“This is a highly unorthodox action that will immediately push essential abortion care out of reach for patients beyond the earliest stages of pregnancy,” according to a joint statement from American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Georgia, Center for Reproductive Rights, Planned Parenthood Southeast, and Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
“Across the state, providers are now being forced to turn away patients who thought they would be able to access abortion, immediately changing the course of their lives and futures,” the statement reads. “This is horrific. We’ll continue doing everything in our power to fight for abortion access in Georgia in the face of these harmful attacks on people’s ability to control if and when to have a child.”
Georgia had previously allowed abortions up to 20 weeks of pregnancy.
Kwajelyn J Jackson, executive director of Feminist Women’s Health Center, said the law’s “heaviest” impacts will fall on the state’s Black women and other marginalized groups.
“This cruel abortion ban would deny our patients the right to make decisions about their own pregnancies, bodies and futures,” she said.
Alexis McGill Johnson, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, warned that “people who can’t afford to leave the state will be forced to seek abortion outside the health care system or remain pregnant against their will.”
“This is a grave human rights violation,” she said.
If Georgia’s anti-abortion law is allowed to stand, and legal challenges that have temporarily blocked enforcement of similar laws fail, most abortion care will effectively be outlawed across the entire US South.
Following the Supreme Court’s ruling, at least eight states – Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wisconsin – have outlawed abortion entirely in nearly all instances.
Lawsuits from abortion rights advocates and abortion providers have temporarily frozen some anti-abortion laws, and restraining orders are currently blocking such laws in Kentucky, Louisiana and Utah while their legal challenges play out in court.
As many as 26 states could outlaw abortion without the federal protection previously in place under Roe. Anti-abortion state lawmakers are working on more-restrictive laws that are expected to pass GOP-dominated state legislatures in the coming weeks and months.