Opinion Columns & Blogs

Bigger, scarier changes than you might realize lurk within Georgia’s new abortion law

As a state senator, I have been vocal in my opposition to Georgia’s new abortion ban, HB 481. While I am not here to argue the merits, I can’t sit by and let pundits spin the law into something that it isn’t to further a particular political agenda.

While the possible consequences to women are frightening and unclear, that is not a reason to deny that they exist. Everyone needs to recognize what the law does, and maybe more significantly, what that the law could be used to do.

Quite simply, HB 481 will effectively ban all abortions — before an embryo or fetus is viable outside of a uterus and before a woman or girl even knows she is pregnant.

But that is just the beginning. For the first time, Georgia law could be used by prosecutors to criminally prosecute women for terminating a pregnancy at its earliest stages.

In the past when interpreting previous versions of Georgia’s anti-abortion laws, courts found that women could not be criminally prosecuted for terminating a pregnancy. They focused on the words in the statutes to conclude that lawmakers didn’t intend to prosecute women, just doctors.

But some of the language that protected us in the past has been thrown out and HB 481 has been put in.

So what does it say?

Abortion will now include actions that a woman might take to terminate a pregnancy and not just acts that would be performed on her by another (i.e., a doctor performing a procedure on a woman). A woman alone could now commit the act of abortion without the involvement of anyone else.

Any woman who suffers a miscarriage could be subject to scrutiny regarding whether or not she intentionally acted to cause her loss. She could be at risk of an indictment for virtually any perceived self-destructive behavior during pregnancy.

Because of HB 481, any future court faced with the question of whether women can be prosecuted has to presume that the legislature intended some change in existing law. That court would not have to look far to find evidence of legislative intent to extend criminal liability to women.

In the bill itself, if a woman can prove she thought she was having a medical emergency and that’s why she had an abortion, then she should not be convicted of a crime. That’s called an affirmative defense. The implication there for us women is that if you did not think you were having a medical emergency, then you can be convicted of a crime. That’s not how I think the law should be, and that’s not how I want it. But ignoring the reality of this law does not make it go away.

If all of that was not enough, HB 481 works a wholesale change to existing law by defining a fertilized egg as a “natural person.” In other words, an egg has the rights of any other citizen and would be protected by the same laws. So, criminal laws that outlaw murder or manslaughter could be applied. Whether to prosecute a woman would be entirely up to the discretion of the prosecutor.

I have been an attorney for almost 20 years, and to me, the real-life implications of H.B.481 are far from clear. But there is enough there for an aggressive prosecutor to indict a woman for terminating a pregnancy at its earliest stages. This is unacceptable.

While I don’t think that the prosecution of a woman would be successful or that most district attorneys would even try it, I think that they could.

That should worry every single woman in this state.