Georgia’s Pro-Life Heartbeat Act originally enacted in 2019 has finally been authorized by a federal court to go into effect following the reversal of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court last month.
In Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the high court overruled Roe and returned the authority to regulate or prohibit abortion to the states individually. That led to immediate litigation in multiple states where trigger laws went into effect or older pro-life laws became enforceable.
When the Georgia law was passed in 2019, abortion advocates sued in federal court claiming that the law violated Roe and that the definition of “natural person” was vague to the point that it could not be said to include unborn children.
Before Wednesday, the law had been blocked since 2020 when the court agreed and ruled it unconstitutional pursuant to Roe. The law declares that abortions are prohibited after a baby has developed a medically detectable heartbeat, which usually occurs at about the sixth week of pregnancy.
The Georgia Heartbeat Act has three exceptions to the prohibition. Pregnancies occurring due to rape or incest can be legally terminated if a police report is filed documenting the alleged criminal act. Abortion is also allowed if pregnancy presents a “serious risk to the life of the mother.” Termination of pregnancy is also allowed if a naturally occurring medical condition renders an unborn child unviable.
The law also specifically includes unborn children in the definition of “natural persons” under state law.
The federal Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Wednesday that the law is constitutional and enforceable by the state in light of the ruling in Dobbs.
Chief Judge William Pryor wrote the opinion of a unanimous three-judge panel of the court based in Atlanta. The court found that Georgia had a rational basis for enacting the law, having declared the necessity of “providing full legal recognition to an unborn child.”
While an appeals court might typically take weeks to be finalized and effective, the court took legal steps to allow the Georgia law to go into force immediately. Emory University law professor Fred Smith reviewed the decision and agreed that “at this time, the law is in effect.”
Before the Heartbeat Act, Georgia law had allowed abortions at any time in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy without exceptions.
Given the recency of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs, the Eleventh Circuit order almost certainly marks the end of the litigation.