Atlanta -- Amid tears, gasps and handshakes, a Georgia House committee approved legislation Wednesday to outlaw abortion after a fetus' heartbeat can be detected, which is before many women know they are pregnant.
Women in Georgia can currently seek an abortion up to 20 weeks of a pregnancy. A heartbeat is generally detectable by medical professionals at around 6 weeks.
The bill comes as abortion opponents across the country are hopeful the Supreme Court - with new Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh - will either reverse Roe v. Wade, or uphold specific state laws that could undermine the court's 1973 ruling establishing a nationwide right to abortion.
Wednesday's hearing was tense and emotional with several outbursts slowing proceedings and activists and citizens moved to tears on both sides of the issue.
The House Health and Human Services Committee approved the anti-abortion measure on a party-line vote of 17 to 14. Thirteen Republican men and four Republican women voted for it. Seven Democratic men and seven Democratic women voted against.
The committee approval means the bill could soon move to a vote before the full House, but timing is tight.
Thursday marks a Georgia legislative deadline by which a bill must generally pass one chamber or the other.
Gov. Brian Kemp pledged during his recent campaign for governor to sign the "toughest abortion laws in the country." Kemp's campaign website says he supports "a 'Heartbeat Bill' that outlaws abortions after six weeks."
The bill makes exceptions in the case of rape and incest, but only if the woman files a police report. It also would allow exceptions if the pregnancy places a mother's life at risk.
The chairman of the committee, Rep. Sharon Cooper, introduced an amendment that passed that also makes an exception in the case of a "medically futile" pregnancy - cases in which a fetus is deemed not compatible with life.
"We know life begins at conception. I think that's worthy of full legal protection," said the bill's author, Rep. Ed Setzler. "Certainly we can come together and recognize if there's a human heartbeat, that child's worthy of protection."
Critics of the bill said it would jeopardize women's health, lead to unsafe self-induced abortions and worsen the obstetrician shortage in Georgia.
Democrats tried several times, unsuccessfully, to table the measure Wednesday. Republicans, growing exasperated by delays, tried several times to force a vote.
A group of mostly female lawmakers and health care advocates and professionals lined up to speak against the bill.
Democratic Rep. Park Cannon of Atlanta was among two lawmakers who testified about their own abortion experiences. Cannon said she remains confident in her decision to get an abortion after she was sexually assaulted in 2010.
With tensions running high, Democratic Rep. Kim Schofield of Atlanta asked Setzler at one point: "How many times have you actually carried a baby?"
Setzler talked about his wife's experience with pregnancy, including miscarriages they suffered.
Dr. Melissa Kottke, who is on the advisory board of Georgia's OB-GYN Society, voiced worries the bill would deter obstetricians from practicing in a state that has a shortage of OB-GYNs.
"It's extremely dangerous for lawmakers to presume that they're better equipped than women and their health care providers to judge what is appropriate medical care," Kottke said.
Dr. Kathy Altman, a retired OB-GYN who briefly worked as a medical director for Planned Parenthood in Florida in the 1980s, testified in favor of the bill. Altman, who once supported abortion but later had what she called a change of heart, spoke about an abortion she said she now regrets having.
"I wish there had been a heartbeat bill back then," Altman said.
Said Altman, "We have convinced young women that an unplanned pregnancy is the worst thing that can happen to them and their right to reproductive freedom is more important than their baby's right to live."
One woman testified in favor of the bill, saying that she gave birth to a child conceived from rape, even though her doctor suggested she have an abortion. "My child is not the child of a rapist. She is the child of a rape survivor," said Heather Hobbs with Save the 1, a pro-life advocacy organization for women who give birth after being raped.
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