Georgia state Rep. Ed Setzler (R), right, and state Sen. William Ligon Jr. (R) arrive at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta for a hearing on March 18, 2019. Setzler was a leading figure in conservatives’ successful push for the legislature to pass a “heartbeat bill” sharply limiting abortion. (Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP)

Georgia state legislators on Friday passed one of the nation’s most restrictive abortion bills, which would prohibit the termination of a pregnancy after a fetal heartbeat is detected — as early as six weeks, before many women know they’re pregnant.

The vote came shortly after state Rep. Ed Setzler (R), who sponsored the legislation, called it an effort to establish full legal protections for fetuses and said it was an attempt to outlaw abortion “in the highest courts of the land.”

Gov. Brian Kemp (R), who released a statement praising lawmakers for “their undeniable courage”in passing the legislation, is expected to sign the bill into law. The American Civil Liberties Union promised legal action if he does.

“Governor Kemp, if you sign this abortion ban into law, we will sue and see you in court to fight this blatant attack on the rights and dignity of Georgia women and families,” the organization said in a statement.

The bill attracted national attention and prompted fierce protests from abortion rights advocates, as Setzler called for Republicans to pass the measure so that Kemp can “recruit the best legal team in the nation” to gut the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion nationwide.

The legislation narrowly made it through the Georgia House on Friday, receiving 92 votes, one more than it needed to pass. Seventy-eight representatives, including some Republican lawmakers, opposed the measure.


Abortion rights advocates demonstrate at the Georgia State Capitol building in downtown Atlanta on March 22, 2019. A fetal “heartbeat bill” cleared the legislature on March 29, 2019, and goes to the Republican governor for his signature. (Alyssa Pointer/AP)

The Georgia Senate passed the bill earlier this month on a party-line vote.

Setzler said “common-sense Georgians” had prevailed.

“This bill recognizes the fundamental life of the child in the womb is worthy of legal protection,” he said.

Activists rallied at the statehouse to protest the legislation, chanting “shame” and “dissent” while clad in the red cloaks and white bonnets of characters in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a book and TV series that depicts a dystopian future where women are enslaved to rear children. The protesters have been an almost daily presence, along with heavy security.

On the other side, some opponents of abortion have said the bill is not strict enough. The executive director of Georgia Right To Life, Zemmie Fleck, sent a letter to the group’s supporters Tuesday asking them to urge lawmakers to oppose the measure, arguing that the bill’s exceptions for medical emergencies, rape and incest, when reported to police, are discriminatory toward the unborn.

“We are saddened that the bill discriminates against classes of innocent human beings,” Fleck wrote.

The day before the vote, U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Ga.), who was part of the historic wave of Democratic women elected to Congress in 2018, called on state leaders to oppose the bill.

Other prominent advocates — including Stacey Abrams, a rising star on the left who unsuccessfully ran for Georgia governor in 2018, and Hollywood activists such as Alyssa Milano — used social media throughout the week to ask legislators to reject the restrictions in Georgia. Labor organizer Ai-jen Poo — along with executives from Coca-Cola, Amazon and 90 other Georgia business leaders — signed a letter saying the measure would “take the state in the wrong direction.” (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

After the vote, more cries of “shame” echoed in the chamber.

“This is an all-out assault on the reproductive health and safety of Georgia women,” said Laura Simmons, the Georgia director for the abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America. “This cruel, unconstitutional bill is part of an extreme GOP agenda to strip freedoms from women and could not be further from the values that most Georgians hold.”

Those looking to expand access to abortions said they were alarmed that Setzler was also pushing to establish “personhood” for fetuses, granting full legal protection to fetuses and, critics say, putting those rights before the rights of women. The bill includes a provision allowing people to claim fetuses as dependents on state tax returns after a heartbeat is detected, which further boosts assertions of personhood.

Georgia is one of at least 11 states, including Texas and Florida , to introduce “heartbeat bills” this year.

Steve Aden, chief legal officer of Americans United for Life, which describes itself as “America’s oldest pro-life legal advocacy group,” said that while he understands the “deeply held convictions of the state legislatures, no heartbeat bill has ever saved a life or held up in court.”

“What we tell our members is to focus on bills that are productive and save lives, like making sure women are taught more about abortions before they have one,” Aden said. “I think we need to look at other strategies, like rules around informing women.”

Conservative and religious groups have said they hope a flood of state-led legislation — largely from the South and Midwest — will push the Supreme Court to reconsider the ruling in Roe v. Wade. Many are optimistic about their chances since President Trump’s nominees Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh joined the Supreme Court.

But lower courts have quickly struck down the measures. This month, Kentucky’s governor signed a similar bill that a federal judge swiftly blocked. In January, an Iowa state court did the same to a 2018 law.

In North Carolina on Tuesday, another federal judge overturned a state law prohibiting abortion after the 20th week of pregnancy — which is Georgia’s current law — calling the ban unconstitutional.

Also this week, in Mississippi, the latest state to enact a fetal heartbeat law, abortion rights supporters filed a lawsuit challenging the ban. The Center for Reproductive Rights asked a federal court to block the law before it takes effect July 1.

“Let’s call this law what it is — a near total ban on abortion,” Nancy Northup, the group’s president and CEO, told The Washington Post. “We will keep taking them to court until they get the message.”

Georgia state Sen. Nikema Williams, chair of the state Democratic Party, said women of color and low-income women will “carry the disproportionate burden” of the abortion restrictions.

“I trust women to make the decision that’s right for them and their families,” she said. “I vow to stand with the people of Georgia in fighting this bill.”