Georgia is now home to one of the nation’s most restrictive abortion laws, after a federal appeals court ruled on Wednesday to allow the state’s six-week abortion ban to take effect.
The state law follows the Supreme Court’s recent reversal of Roe v. Wade, the court case that had guaranteed the constitutional right to an abortion. In Georgia, abortions can no longer take place after the fetal heartbeat is detectable, typically about six weeks past conception and often before many women know they’re pregnant. Exceptions are if a woman faces serious harm or death from pregnancy, or in instances of rape when a police report has been filed.
Some experts fear the restrictions could come with dire consequences for pregnant people, particularly for Black people across the state.
“We already have issues with Black women not being heard when they’re concerned about their bodies,” said Dr. Rasheeta Chandler, an assistant professor at Emory University’s Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing. With the latest ban, “they have to be either dying or near death in order to be able to get the care that they need.”
The ruling by 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ends a yearslong court battle over the “fetal heartbeat bill” signed in 2019 by Gov. Brian Kemp that was, shortly after, blocked by a district court for being unconstitutional. “Person” is now redefined in state law to include an embryo or fetus across any stage of development. Prior to the six-week ban, abortions were legal up to at least 20 weeks of pregnancy.
Black people receive 65% of abortions in Georgia, despite being a third of the population. “A lot of that has to do with the policy climate that we’re in and some of the systemic issues within Georgia and the South,” said Whitney Rice, principal investigator for the Center for Reproductive Health Research in the Southeast at Emory. Some of the systemic inequities includeaccess to quality health care, sexual education and conception, particularly in the Deep South where abstinence-only education presides.
“There is no time to mourn,” said Kwajelyn J. Jackson, executive director of Feminist Women’s Health Center, stating that her team is moving quickly to deal with the new reality for abortion providers.
“As a result of this decision, we are now having to move quickly to figure out what’s next for our clinic and our clients’ futures,” she said, noting that the center is working to accept as many clients as they can who qualify under new state terms.
“We are calling and disappointing many, many patients with already scheduled appointments,” she said. The most disappointing calls were the ones made to Black women who planned to travel to Atlanta, nodding to the city’s long history as a hub for abortion care in the Southeast, Jackson said.
“These are patients who were traveling from banned states and now we can’t accept them,” she said. “It’s just truly unfair and cruel that we are no longer allotted 28 days to even swallow this pill.”
Georgia is among the most dangerous states to give birth, particularly for Black people, whose maternal mortality rate is three times that of their white counterparts statewide. The vast majority of these pregnancy-related deaths are preventable, experts say. And with more babies being carried to term under new abortion laws, experts say the number of deaths and racial disparities are likely to increase.
“We haven’t even gotten a handle on those issues, unfortunately, to the point where outcomes have improved significantly or to where we would like for them to be,” Chandler said. “To add [an abortion ban] onto that, we anticipate that that would increase the maternal mortality issues in the state. We hope to be wrong.”
The ruling’s impact extends beyond state lines. Pregnant people from surrounding states where abortion services were limited often traveled to Georgia for care, Rice said
Many people who’ve gotten an abortion have given birth in the past and have children to care for, which adds layers to the dynamics of access to abortion care with added restrictions, she said. “Are they going to receive childcare during the time that they travel? What happens to their jobs? Do they need to have time away to travel to receive care?”
These decisions, experts have reiterated, will disproportionately affect lower income families, and likely exacerbate the disparities in access to quality health care already prevalent.
Park Cannon, state representative for House District 58 and board member of Sister Song, says that the law is racist and a poorly written attempt to uphold classism in the American health care system.
“Everyone should have access to safe and effective pills that give us the privacy and control to end a pregnancy on our own terms,” said Cannon. “Getting an abortion is already such an intimate and personal process.”