Newly revived ‘fetal pain’ law will affect women well beyond Georgia

A ruling this week that activates a state ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy will have implications far beyond Georgia, experts say.

Hundreds of women from outside the state received abortions here in 2012 and 2013 that are now illegal in Georgia, according to researchers at the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco. 

According to their report, during those two years 783 women had abortions in Georgia between 22 and 24 weeks after conception. About half of the women were from outside the state.

“Women traveled from throughout the South to obtain abortions after 20 weeks, so this decision has an impact on the health and impact of women crossing state lines to obtain abortion care,” said Sarah Roberts, an assistant professor and lead researcher on the study, “Implications of Georgia’s 20-week Abortion Ban.”

The researchers said they identified five clinics that performed abortions in the state after 20 weeks and obtained data from four. All were in Atlanta.

A different dataset, from the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Abortion Surveillance System, shows that 31,370 abortions were performed in Georgia in 2012, the last year for which CDC statistics were available. Of that total, 3.6 percent, or 1,128, were obtained by women who were at or beyond 21 weeks in their pregnancies.

The Georgia Legislature passed the so-called “fetal pain” abortion law in 2012, asserting that fetuses may experience pain after 20 weeks gestation and so should be protected.

But the law was halted before it could take effect. Three obstetricians and the American Civil Liberties Union challenged the measure in court, and a Fulton County judge put the law on hold days before its effective date, on Jan. 1, 2013.

A different Fulton County judge on Wednesday dissolved the injunction and dismissed the lawsuit, meaning the 2012 law has finally taken effect. Doctors who perform abortions after 20 weeks can now be charged with a felony for doing so.

The law provided exceptions for protecting the life of the mother and for terminating a “medically futile” pregnancy. It did not provide for exceptions in the case of rape or incest.

Because of those provisions, anti-abortion forces did not fully embrace the judge’s decision Wednesday, just as they have not fully embraced the 2012 law.

“This is a mixed blessing,” said Gen Wilson, chapter director for Georgia Right to Life. “Truly we are grateful for the lives the law will save. However, we deeply regret the Legislature added that exception for medically futile pregnancies.”

The plaintiffs said they will appeal the judge’s decision and will ask that the injunction blocking the law be restored.

Their complaint is that the Georgia law is unconstitutional because it violates women’s right to privacy. On the question of fetal pain, however, physicians’ groups have long maintained that fetuses at 20 weeks gestation are incapable of feeling pain. The Journal of American Medical Association did an exhaustive review of research in 2005 and came to that conclusion; the American Congress of Obstetricians and Pediatricians affirmed the finding in 2013.

South Carolina’s 20-weeks ban was signed into law by Gov. Nikki Haley on Wednesday. Now that Georgia’s law has taken effect, Florida will be the only state in the southeast where women may obtain abortions after 20 weeks.

The University of California, San Francisco, study noted that the number of later abortions (18 weeks gestation or longer) reported at the Atlanta clinics declined from 1,269 in 2012 to 758 in 2013. The study’s authors said the 20-week ban, even though it was suspended, almost certainly accounted for part of that decline.

Staff writer Misty Williams contributed to this article.

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