ATLANTA — A federal lawsuit filed Friday in Atlanta is the latest effort by abortion providers and advocacy groups to challenge a wave of restrictive abortion laws passed in conservative-controlled state legislatures.
Lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood and the Center 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 an advocacy group, asks a judge to prevent the law from taking effect and to declare it unconstitutional. Otherwise, the law becomes enforceable Jan. 1.
The lawsuit aims "to ensure that everyone has the freedom to make their own health care decisions without politicians looking over their shoulder and the freedom to decide for themselves when to start or expand a family," ACLU of Georgia legal director Sean Young said at a news conference.
The so-called heartbeat law bans abortion once a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which can occur as early as six weeks, before many women know they're pregnant. It's one of a spate of laws passed recently by Republican-controlled legislatures in an attack on the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.
The publicity surrounding the laws has created confusion, abortion providers say. Staci Fox, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Southeast, reminded people that abortion remains legal in every state.
"Every day, our collective doors stay open so that you can access the quality, compassionate, non-judgmental health care that you deserve, and that includes access to safe and legal abortion," Fox said.
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, saying that is the point where "the full value of a child begins." That would make the fetus a dependent minor for tax purposes and trigger child support obligations.
"We will not accept any law that dehumanizes us in an attempt to assign humanity to cells that are growing inside of us," said Kwajelyn Jackson, executive director of Feminist Women's Health Center, one of the plaintiffs.
The lawsuit targeted Georgia Gov. 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.
Kemp's office referred requests for comment to Carr's office.
"I realize that some may challenge it in the court of law," Kemp said when he signed the law in May. "We will not back down. We will always continue to fight for life."
Carr's office declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.
"It's not unexpected that some group that wants abortion on demand is going to file a suit," the bill's main sponsor, Rep. Ed Setzler, said Friday. "But I believe that Georgia has proceeded with common sense, with the support of science and on a legally sound foundation that'll ultimately be upheld in our courts."
Setlzer noted that Georgia's law is unlike other states' "heartbeat" bills because it establishes the full "personhood" of fetuses across the legal code.
Women choose to have abortions "for a variety of deeply personal reasons" that include family circumstances, medical concerns and financial situation, the lawsuit says.
If the law takes effect, some women who are able will travel out of state for the procedure, but other women will remain pregnant and give birth against their will or will seek to end their pregnancies outside of a clinical setting putting them at risk for harm, the lawsuit says.
The law could also have a chilling effect on health care providers in the state because they might fear prosecution for any care they provide to pregnant patients that could harm a fetus, the lawsuit says.
The new definition of a fetus as a "natural person" could have implications that are "vague and potentially vast," the lawsuit says.
Louisiana , Kentucky , Mississippi and Ohio have passed similar "heartbeat" bills. Missouri's governor signed a bill approving 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. Some have already been blocked, and courts are expected to put the others on hold while legal challenges play out.