Tuesday 17 September 2019

Lawsuit seeks to block Georgia law that bans most abortions

The law is among the US’s most restrictive abortion legislation.

Abortion rights activists (Sally Ince/The Jefferson City News-Tribune via AP)
Abortion rights activists (Sally Ince/The Jefferson City News-Tribune via AP)

By Kate Brumback and Mark Sherman, Associated Press

A federal lawsuit has been filed in Atlanta in the latest effort by abortion providers and advocacy groups to challenge a wave of restrictive abortion laws passed in conservative states.

Lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood and the Centre for Reproductive Rights filed the lawsuit challenging a new Georgia law that effectively bans abortions about six weeks into a pregnancy.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Georgia abortion providers and advocacy groups, asks a judge to prevent the law from taking effect and to declare it unconstitutional. If it is not blocked, it will take effect on January 1.

“The US Supreme Court has clearly held that a woman has the freedom to make one of the most intimate decisions that she can make,” ACLU of Georgia legal director Sean Young said.

The so-called heartbeat law bans abortion once a foetal heartbeat can be detected, which can occur as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, before many women know they are pregnant.

It is one of a spate of laws passed recently by Republican-controlled legislatures in an attack on the US Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe vs Wade ruling that said a woman has the right to choose whether to have an abortion.

The legislation makes exceptions in the case of rape and incest, if the woman files a police report first. It also allows for abortions when the life of the woman is at risk or when a foetus is determined not to be viable because of a serious medical condition.

It also declares an embryo or foetus a “natural person” once cardiac activity can be detected, saying that is the point where “the full value of a child begins”. That would make the foetus a dependent minor for tax purposes and trigger child support obligations.

“This law is an affront to the dignity and health of Georgians,” the lawsuit says. “It is in particular an attack on low-income Georgians, Georgians of colour, and rural Georgians, who are least able to access medical care and least able to overcome the cruelties of this law.”

The lawsuit was filed against Georgia governor Brian Kemp, attorney general Chris Carr, state health officials and six district attorneys whose jurisdictions include the areas where the abortion providers who brought the suit practice.

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Brian Kemp signs the legislation (Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP)

Mr Kemp acknowledged when he signed the law in May that a court challenge was likely, but he was undeterred.

“I realise that some may challenge it in the court of law,” he said. “We will not back down. We will always continue to fight for life.”

Louisiana, Kentucky , Mississippi and Ohio have passed similar bills barring abortion once there is a detectable foetal heartbeat.

Missouri’s governor signed a bill approving an eight-week ban on abortion, with exceptions only for medical emergencies.

A new Alabama law bans virtually all abortions, even in cases of rape or incest, and makes performing an abortion at any stage of pregnancy a felony punishable by 10 to 99 years or life in prison for the provider.

None of the bans has taken effect and all are expected to be blocked by the courts while legal challenges move forward.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court refused to revive Alabama’s ban on the most commonly used procedure in second-trimester abortions, after the measure was blocked by lower courts.

The justices rejected the state’s appeal seeking to enforce a law enacted in 2016 that bans the abortion procedure known as dilation and evacuation.

Alabama attorney general Steve Marshall calls the procedure “dismemberment abortion”.

Courts have blocked similar laws in Kansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas.

Court records show 93% of abortions in Alabama occur before 15 weeks of pregnancy. Almost all of the remainder are by dilation and evacuation.

US District Judge Myron Thompson found that the Alabama law would amount to a virtual ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

The 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed his ruling blocking the law, but two of the three judges said they voted to affirm only because they are bound by past Supreme Court decisions in support of abortion rights.

In Missouri, a commissioner said the state’s only abortion clinic can continue providing the service at least until August as a fight over its licence plays out.

Administrative hearing commissioner Sreenivasa Rao Dandamudi granted a stay that will allow the St Louis Planned Parenthood affiliate to continue abortions as a court order allowing abortions to continue at the clinic was set to expire.

The state health department has refused to renew the clinic’s licence, citing concerns including three “failed abortions” that required additional operations.

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