ATLANTA — Georgia has asked a federal judge not to block the state's restrictive abortion law from taking effect and to dismiss a challenge to the constitutionality of the measure.
The law bans abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected, which can happen as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, before many women realize they're expecting. It allows for only limited exceptions.
The ban is "constitutional and justified," lawyers for the state argued in court filings filed Monday. The law "advances Georgia's unique and substantial constitutional interest in protecting unborn human lives, in addition to its interests in protecting maternal health, encouraging childbirth, and safeguarding the integrity of the medical profession," they said.
The law, which was signed by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp in May, is set to become enforceable Jan. 1.
Lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood and the Center for Reproductive Rights filed a federal lawsuit in June on behalf of Georgia abortion providers and an advocacy group, saying women have the constitutional right to be free to make their own health care and family planning decisions without interference from politicians. In July, they asked the judge to stop it from taking effect while the case plays out.
In response, the state lawyers said they "deny all allegations in the complaint that killing a living unborn child constitutes 'medical care' or health care.'"
The Georgia 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 fetus is determined not to be viable because of a serious medical condition.
Additionally, it declares an embryo or fetus a "natural person" once cardiac activity can be detected, which the law says is the point where "the full value of a child begins." This declaration would make the fetus a dependent minor for tax purposes and trigger child support obligations, and could have other impacts in state law.
The so-called heartbeat law is one of a string of similar measures passed by Republican-led legislatures around the country in a attack on the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.
The Georgia law is not unconstitutional because it does not ban all pre-viability abortions, state lawyers argue. Furthermore, they add, the U.S. Supreme Court has never held that restricting pre-viability abortions is inherently unlawful.
State lawyers also argue that the Georgia law "advances multiple interests that the Supreme Court has accepted as legitimate."
State lawyers also reject arguments in the lawsuit that amending the state's definition of "natural person" to include "an unborn child" could have unconstitutionally vague implications.
Since the issues in the case "turn on pure questions of law," there is enough time for the merits of the case to be heard by the court before the law is set to take effect, state lawyers argue. They proposed an expedited timeline that would culminate in a hearing in early November.
That would allow the court to make a final decision on the merits of the arguments raised in the lawsuit before the law takes effect, which would eliminate the need for an order blocking the law temporarily while litigation continues, state lawyers argued.
However, if the court doesn't believe there's enough time to fully hear the case before Jan. 1, state lawyers argue that the court should not block the law from taking effect.
Sean Young, legal director for the ACLU of Georgia, said in an emailed statement that the plaintiffs will respond in a court filing.
Several other states have passed similar "heartbeat" bills. Missouri's governor approved a ban on abortion at eight weeks, 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 abortion remains legal in every state. Some of the laws have already been blocked, and courts are expected to put the others on hold as they consider legal challenges.