Round Table: Professors Discuss Georgia’s ‘Heartbeat Bill’

The Georgia legislature passed a bill on March 29 banning abortions upon the detection of a fetal heartbeat, which typically occurs after six weeks of pregnancy. The bill is expected to be signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp.

The Wheel conducted in-person and email interviews with Assistant Professor of Behavioral Sciences and Health Education Kelli Stidham Hall; Assistant Professors of Gynecology and Obstetrics and Family Planning Megan Lawley and Tiffany Hailstorks; and Adjunct Professor of Political Science Jeffrey Morrison, who all discussed the background and impact of the bill. Lawley and Hailstorks were interviewed together, while Hall and Morrison were both interviewed separately.

The Wheel’s “Round Table” series intends to share the thoughts of a diverse group of Emory faculty and staff regarding modern issues with the student body.

Interview transcripts have been edited for clarity and length.

The Emory Wheel: To what extent do you believe legislators should regulate medical procedures like abortion?

KH: Legislative interference is a problem from a public health and medical perspective. There have been many studies looking at the harm that legislative interference can do, not even in an abortion context, but in public health-related fields in general. Research suggests that access to medical procedures is best left up to the patient and the provider rather than policymakers sitting at a whole different level. Legislative interference results in worse outcomes and less access to care.

TEW: Other states have proposed similar fetal heartbeat bills. Do you think this type of legislation could be implemented nationwide?

KH: I think that’s a concern, to be honest with you. Most of the legislative threats to abortion access over the past decade or so have been deemed unconstitutional in direct conflict with Roe v. Wade. Now we have a much different legal landscape which is much more conservative than it has been in the past few years.

TEW: How would you evaluate the constitutionality of this bill?

Jeffrey Morrison: There are at least two major constitutional issues raised by Georgia’s fetal heartbeat bill.

One, the Georgia Senate bill imposes an undue burden on a woman’s right to an abortion prior to the viability of the fetus. The Senate bill effectively prohibits abortion after a doctor detects a human heartbeat, which could be as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. This provision violates the Court’s holding in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, because such a provision imposes an undue burden on a woman’s right to have an abortion. An undue burden is defined as a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion before the fetus attains viability. Because a fetal heartbeat can be detected well before viability, banning abortions for any period before viability would be deemed as imposing an undue burden on a woman’s right to choose.

Two, the Senate bill does not include an exception to permit abortion to protect the mental health of a woman seeking an abortion. The U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Casey recognized that a state had the power to restrict abortions after viability so long as the law contains exceptions for pregnancies endangering the life or health of the mother. In Doe v. Bolton, the Supreme Court held that when a physician exercises his or her medical judgment as to when an abortion may be medically necessary to protect the health of the mother, the physician should consider all factors — physical, emotional, psychological, familial and the woman’s age — relevant to the well-being of the patient.

TEW: What are the potential implications of this bill on Georgia’s healthcare system?

Megan Lawley: I think the implications of this bill are catastrophic. We can’t overstate the importance of access to abortion in productive healthcare. I think what’s so hard to understand from our perspective is that Georgia has the worst maternal mortality rate in the country. This is not the time when we should be limiting access to healthcare.

Tiffany Hailstorks: Agreed, I would only add that this bill virtually bans abortion in our state. Most women don’t even realize they’re pregnant within the gestational age limit. We know that in states where there are more abortion restrictions, there are poorer health outcomes.

TEW: Will this kind of legislation affect any Georgia communities in particular?

TH: Definitely, I think that it’s going to impact women of color the most. They already have issues with access to care and I think that this will hit them harder. I think that if you have access and you have means, you will leave Georgia to get this done. If you don’t, you’ll be stuck.

ML: Women who are denied an abortion are at four times greater risk of being below the federal poverty level. I think that living in Atlanta, we don’t realize the scope of the healthcare shortage in this state. Half the counties in Georgia don’t even have an obstetrician-gynecologist. Nine counties in Georgia don’t even have a physician. These women have to travel 45 minutes to an hour just to see a physician.