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Anti-abortion ‘heartbeat’ bill clears Ga. Senate

March 23, 2019 GMT

After nearly five hours of often-emotional debate, the Georgia Senate voted 34 to 18 Friday to ban most abortions at the point when a fetal heartbeat can be detected.

That’s generally around six weeks, before many women know they’re pregnant.

The legislation, House Bill 481, was heavily amended in the Senate Science and Technology Committee and will have to go back to the House for another vote. If there’s an impasse, a conference committee with members from both chambers will be appointed to try to iron out the differences.

Sens. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, and Bill Heath, R-Bremen, were among the majority who voted in favor of the bill. Hufstetler texted a brief statement following the late adjournment.

“I supported this pro-life bill,” he said. “I was not on the committees that vetted this bill and do still have technical concerns with some medical, criminal and immigration components. I hope the House and Senate conferees will study this in the coming week.”

There are five days remaining in the session which, allowing for weekends and workdays, is slated to end April 2.

The bill gives “full legal recognition of an unborn child above the level of federal law,” according to the Senate sponsor, Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, who chaired the committee where it was vetted.

Physicians with the Medical Association of Georgia, along with a number of other health care organizations, opposed the measure.

They cited civil and criminal penalties that could be levied against professionals and pregnant women for the loss of a child. They also contend that uncertainty about what the law demands would dampen efforts to get obstetricians and other medical professionals to immigrate to the state.

Unterman, a former cardiovascular nurse with two adopted children, said her committee refined the House bill to add definitions and incorporate the “detectable human heartbeat standard.”

The Senate version also limits which law enforcement officers could access a pregnant woman’s health records and adds pregnancy-related expenses to the medical bills the father would have to share in.

The bill contains exceptions for rape, incest, nonviable pregnancies, a medically fragile fetus and medical emergencies affecting the life or major bodily function of the woman.

It also would allow the fetus to be claimed as a minor dependent for income tax purposes. The bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, testified in committee it would likely cost the state $10 million to $20 million, but senators voted against requiring a fiscal note before taking action.

Sen. Zahra Karinshak, D-Duluth, grew up in Northwest Georgia “in trailer parks and housing projects,” and she pointed to her sister from Walker County in the audience. She said the lives of women in rural counties without OBGYNs would be at risk.

“The only people truly impacted by this legislation are the ones who grew up like us,” Karinshak said, noting that the State of Georgia has one of the highest rates in the nation for maternal mortality.

Gov. Brian Kemp hailed the bill’s passage, saying it protects the most vulnerable and gives “a voice to those who cannot yet speak for themselves.”

“Today, the State Senate affirmed Georgia’s commitment to life and the rights of the innocent unborn,” Kemp said in a statement.

The American Civil Liberties Union also issued a statement, underscoring the high death rate of pregnant Georgians and noting that “a woman’s constitutional right to a legal abortion has been settled law for nearly 50 years.”

“If this bill becomes law, it will be challenged. We will see you in court,” said Andrea Young, ACLU of Georgia executive director.