Federal appeals court rules 2019 Georgia law banning most abortions should be allowed to take effect

A federal appeals court on Wednesday overturned a lower court ruling and said Georgia’s restrictive 2019 abortion law should be allowed to take effect.

The Georgia law bans most abortions once a "detectable human heartbeat" is present. Cardiac activity can be detected by ultrasound in cells within an embryo that will eventually become the heart as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, before many women realize they’re pregnant.

The Georgia law includes exceptions for rape and incest, as long as a police report is filed. It also provides for later abortions when the mother’s life is at risk or a serious medical condition renders a fetus unviable.

A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a Mississippi case that overturned Roe v. Wade clears the way for the law to take effect, saying it "makes clear no right to abortion exists under the Constitution, so Georgia may prohibit them."

The appeals court also rejected arguments that a "personhood" provision in the law is unconstitutionally vague. The provision grants personhood to a fetus, giving it the same legal rights as people have after birth.

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A federal judge put the law on hold before it could take effect and in July 2020 permanently blocked it, saying it was unconstitutional under the Supreme Court precedent that was recently overturned. The state appealed to the 11th Circuit, and a three-judge panel of the appeals court last fall said it would wait for the Supreme Court ruling in the Mississippi case before taking action on Georgia’s appeal.

The Supreme Court ruled on June 24 and Georgia’s attorney general asked the appeals court that afternoon to overturn the lower court ruling and allow the state’s abortion law to take effect.

The 1973 decision of Roe v. Wade declared a fundamental right to an abortion prior to viability of the fetus. Planned Parenthood v. Casey narrowed that in 1992 to say states can’t place an undue burden in the way of women seeking an abortion prior to viability.

Georgia’s so-called heartbeat law was one of a wave of laws passed by Republican-controlled legislatures in recent years to attack those rulings as anti-abortion activists and lawmakers saw an opportunity in a new conservative Supreme Court majority.