A judge determining whether to strike down Georgia’s abortion limits heard conflicting views Tuesday about how such restrictions affect doctors who care for pregnant women.
Georgia’s law bans abortions as early as six weeks into pregnancy, though it allows for later abortions to prevent a woman’s death or “the substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function.”
That exception is unclear and has “hand-tied” doctors in the state, who are struggling to determine what conditions meet the standard and when, said Martina Badell, a doctor who specializes in maternal and fetal health at Emory University School of Medicine.
“In some situations now, we may counsel and say, ‘That is the standard of care and you should have this option, but I’m sorry, it’s not clear we can provide that for you here in Georgia,’” she testified on the second day of the trial over Georgia’s abortion law.
Badell, a witness for the plaintiffs seeking to invalidate the law, noted that doctors face possible criminal prosecution for performing an illegal abortion.
Doctors in Texas were initially confused about when they could intervene to provide an abortion that would not violate that state’s ban, which took effect before Georgia’s, said Ingrid Skop, an obstetrician and gynecologist who testified later as a witness for Georgia officials defending the law. But Skop said hospitals have since provided helpful guidance, and she expects the same thing will happen in Georgia.
She said obstetricians have always faced a heightened risk of being second-guessed, as evidenced by the large number of malpractice suits they face.
“I understand how a felony is scary, but there is nothing that this law is telling doctors to do or not do that we haven’t always done,” she said of Georgia’s abortion restriction. “We’ve always intervened when we needed to to save a woman’s life.”
Skop is the director of medical affairs at the Charlotte Lozier Institute, part of an advocacy group that seeks to end access to abortion.
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney scheduled a two-day trial in a lawsuit that argues Georgia’s abortion ban violates the state Constitution’s right to privacy and liberty by “forcing pregnancy and childbirth upon countless Georgians.”
The state Attorney General’s office said in a court filing that Georgia’s privacy protections do not extend to abortion because it affects another “human life.”
McBurney heard from additional witnesses Tuesday, the second and final day of the trial.
Farr Curlin, a physician at Duke University who also holds an appointment at the college’s divinity school, testified for the state in support of Georgia’s abortion law and said a heartbeat is an indicator that an animal is alive.
Gloria Nesmith, an ultrasound technician at an abortion clinic in Atlanta, recalled a woman who didn’t have child care wailing when she learned she was just past the period when she could have received an abortion in Georgia.
McBurney said earlier that he will not issue a ruling until after Nov. 8.
Georgia’s law bans most abortions once a “detectable human heartbeat” is present. Cardiac activity can be detected by ultrasound in cells within an embryo that will eventually become the heart as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. That means most abortions in Georgia are effectively banned at a point before many women know they are pregnant.
The law also includes exceptions for rape and incest, as long as a police report is filed.