Court says it will wait to rule on Georgia abortion law

A federal appeals court said Monday that it will wait until the U.S. Supreme Court rules on a case that seeks to overturn its landmark decision guaranteeing a woman’s right to an abortion before weighing in on a restrictive Georgia abortion law that a lower court blocked.

Mississippi has argued in court filings that the U.S. Supreme Court should overturn its decision in Roe v. Wade, which affirmed the right to an abortion. The high court is set to hear arguments in that case in December. Mississippi’s law would ban abortions later than 15 weeks into a pregnancy.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling staying the appeal in the Georgia case just three days after hearing arguments Friday on whether it should overturn a lower court ruling that permanently blocked the 2019 Georgia law. That means the law remains blocked, and abortion in Georgia remains available up to 20 weeks into pregnancy.

The ACLU, Planned Parenthood and the Center for Reproductive Rights had sued on behalf of Georgia abortion providers and an advocacy group to block the law, and a federal judge ruled in July 2020 that the law was unconstitutional.

Staci Fox, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Southeast, said Monday in an emailed statement that Georgia’s law is "blatantly unconstitutional."

"The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals appropriately acted on the binding 50 year precedent that says abortion is constitutionally protected health care, and our doors will continue to remain open," she said.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp remains confident that the state will ultimately prevail in court, spokesperson Katie Byrd said in an email.

"Georgia is a state that values life, and the Governor is proud to champion and defend the LIFE Act," she said.

The 11th Circuit decision to stay the appeal was not a huge surprise. Circuit Chief Judge William Pryor, who served on the three-judge panel that heard the arguments in the Georgia case along with Circuit Judge Barbara Lagoa and District Judge Harvey Schlesinger, made it clear Friday that he believed that would be the prudent choice.

The Georgia law would have banned 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, before many women realize they’re pregnant.

The law included exceptions for rape and incest as long as a police report is filed. It also provided for later abortions when the mother’s life is at risk or a serious medical condition renders a fetus unviable. The law also would have granted personhood to a fetus, giving it the same legal rights as people have after birth.

The 1973 decision of Roe v. Wade declared a fundamental right to an abortion prior to viability of the fetus. Planned Parenthood v. Casey narrowed that in 1992 to say states can’t place an undue burden in the way of women seeking an abortion prior to viability.

Georgia’s so-called heartbeat law was one of a wave of laws passed by Republican-controlled legislatures in recent years to attack those rulings as anti-abortion activists and lawmakers saw opportunity in a new conservative Supreme Court majority.