The proposal now heads to the desk of Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who backs it. If enacted, it would be among the strictest abortion bans in the U.S. The measure was approved by 92 votes, just one vote more than the majority needed to pass out of the 180-member House.
Just after the vote, a tense situation erupted when law enforcement confronted several Democratic lawmakers and protesters speaking against the bill in the halls of the Capitol. Officers threatened to arrest people if a crowd didn't disperse and stop chanting "shame".
Georgia joins a string of GOP-controlled states moving to enact strict abortion bans, with the ultimate goal of getting a case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court to challenge its 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide. The push comes amid rising optimism among conservatives that the restrictions might prevail in the reconfigured high court that includes President Donald Trump appointees Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.
Women in Georgia can currently seek an abortion during the first 20 weeks of a pregnancy. A heartbeat can be detected in an embryo as early as six weeks, before many women know they are pregnant. The bill would make exceptions in the case of rape and incest — but only when the woman files a police report first — and to save the life of the mother. It also would allow for abortions when a fetus is determined not to be viable because of serious medical issues.
Republican Rep. Ed Setzler, the bill's author, said it was a "commonsense" measure that seeks to balance "the difficult circumstances women find themselves in with the basic right to life of a child."
Democratic Rep. Dar'shun Kendrick called the legislation a "death warrant" for women in Georgia, noting that the state already has one of the nation's worst maternal mortality rates. The ACLU of Georgia said it will challenge the law in court if it's signed by Kemp.
"Under 50 years of Supreme Court precedent, this bill is blatantly unconstitutional," Sean Young, legal director for the ACLU of Georgia, said in an interview Friday. "That is why every single federal court that has considered such bans has struck them down."
The legislation faced a groundswell of opposition, including Democratic lawmakers and protesters saying on social media and in person that lawmakers who voted in favor of the bill would be targeted in 2020 elections.
A group of women at the Georgia Capitol protested the bill dressed as characters from "The Handmaid's Tale," which depicts a dystopian future where women are controlled by the government and forced to reproduce. The activists in red cloaks and white bonnets have been an almost daily presence since the House first passed the measure earlier this month.
Two influential groups, the Medical Association of Georgia and the Georgia Academy of Family Physicians, sent letters to lawmakers opposing the legislation. The legislation also was opposed by the Writers Guild of America, which represents TV and film writers, and several Hollywood celebrities, who signed an open letter to Kemp in opposition. The letter, spearheaded by actress Alyssa Milano, includes signatures from Alec Baldwin, Amy Schumer, Gabrielle Union, Ben Stiller, Don Cheadle, Mia Farrow and others.
That's significant because Georgia is a burgeoning production hub for TV and film, with 455 productions shot in Georgia in fiscal year 2018, representing $2.7 billion in direct spending in the state. GOP lawmakers in Tennessee, Florida, South Carolina and Ohio are pursuing similar legislation, while Republican governors in Mississippi and Kentucky have recently signed heartbeat abortion bans.
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed a heartbeat abortion ban on March 21, despite a federal judge's ruling last year that struck down a less-restrictive law limiting abortions there. Kentucky's law was temporarily blocked by a federal judge shortly after Republican Gov. Matt Bevin signed it March 14, in response to a challenge by the ACLU. A state judge found Iowa's heartbeat abortion ban unconstitutional in January.
If signed and not blocked in court, the Georgia law would take effect Jan. 1, 2020. Kemp applauded the legislature in a statement Friday. "Georgia values life," Kemp said. "The legislature's bold action reaffirms our priorities and who we are as a state."