Three Southern states move to ban abortion

May 17, 2019

Over the past two weeks, three neighboring Southern states have passed legislation to ban some or all abortions. Last week Georgia passed a law that recognizes the unborn as legal persons as soon as they have a “detectable human heartbeat.” This week Tennessee became the latest state to sign a “trigger law” criminalizing abortion, while Alabama passed the strictest abortion ban in the nation.

The laws in Alabama and Georgia will inevitably be challenged in the federal courts. But that is what the state legislators who passed the laws intend. “With the political and legal landscape finally tilting in their favor, anti-abortion legislators feel empowered to move beyond abortion restrictions and take a shot at full bans,” says Emma Green in The Atlantic. “One day, they believe, this legislation won’t just be politically symbolic—they hope abortion will become illegal across the country.”

Here is what you should know about the recent pro-life laws in these three states:


What the law changes

As the Alabama Human Life Protection Act points out, the state of Alabama already has a statute criminalizing abortion that was made unenforceable by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade.  The state also approved last year a constitutional amendment declaring and affirming the public policy of the state to recognize and support the sanctity of unborn life and the rights of unborn children.

The new law makes performing an abortion a Class A felony (punishable by life imprisonment of not more than 99 years or less than 10 years) and makes an attempted abortion a Class C felony (punishable by imprisonment of one year and one day up to 10 years).

Exceptions and exemptions

The law allows an abortion to be permitted if an attending physician licensed in Alabama determines that an abortion is necessary in order to prevent a serious health risk to the unborn child's mother. This standard is that, in reasonable medical judgment, the child's mother has a condition that so complicates her medical condition that it necessitates the termination of her pregnancy to prevent her death or a serious risk of substantial physical impairment of a major bodily function.

Under this law, and unlike current federal abortion law, a “serious health risk” does not include a condition based on a claim that the woman is suffering from an emotional condition or a mental illness. An exception can be made, though, if a psychiatrist with a minimum of three years of clinical experience and licensed in Alabama examines the woman and documents that the woman has a diagnosed serious mental illness and because of it, there is reasonable medical judgment that she will engage in conduct that could result in her death or the death of her unborn child.

No exception is made for cases of rape or incest.

The law also prevents a woman upon whom an abortion is performed or attempted from being criminally or civilly liable. 


The law will take effect in six months.


What the law changes

The Living Infants Fairness and Equality (LIFE) Act defines a natural person as including an unborn child with a detectable human heartbeat. Under the new law “detectable human heartbeat” means “embryonic or fetal cardiac activity or the steady and repetitive rhythmic contraction of the heart within the gestational sac.” “Unborn child” means a “member of the species Homo sapiens at any stage of development who is carried in the womb.”

The law also provides certain rights to these unborn children, such as allowing them to be considered as minor dependents on state tax returns, to be eligible for paternal child support and certain public-funded benefits, and to be included in “population-based determinations.”

Exceptions and exemptions

The law does not prohibit an abortion prior to the age at which a heartbeat can be detected. The law allows an exception in cases of rape or incest if a woman files a police report and the pregnancy is less than 20 weeks. It also allows exceptions when an abortion is necessary in order to prevent the death of the pregnant woman or the substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman or when in reasonable medical judgment, an unborn child has a profound and irremediable congenital or chromosomal anomaly that is incompatible with sustaining life after birth.

Although this new law does not directly exempt women who have an abortion from prosecution, other Georgia criminal statutes prohibit women from being prosecuted for terminating their own pregnancy.


The law will take effect on Jan. 1, 2020.

See also: Explainer: What you should know about fetal heartbeat legislation


What the law changes

The Human Life Protection Act is a trigger law that will go into effect on the thirtieth day following the occurrence of either passage of a U.S. Constitutional amendment that allows the states to prohibit abortion or the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade.

If either of those events occur, the law will make abortion a Class C felony (punishable by a prison term of three to 15 years, as well as fines of up to $10,000).

Exceptions and exemptions

The law allows an abortion to be permitted if an attending physician determines it is necessary to prevent the death of the pregnant woman or to prevent serious risk of substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function of the mother.

The law does not include an exemption for any reason relating to the pregnant woman’s mental health.

No exception is made for cases of rape or incest.

The criminal penalties would apply only to the person who performs or attempts to perform an abortion commits the offense of criminal abortion and not the pregnant woman.


The law will only take effect when one of the conditions mentioned above occurs and makes it enforceable.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is the author of The Life and Faith Field Guide for Parents, the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible, and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. He also serves as an executive pastor at the McLean Bible Church Arlington location in Arlington, Virginia. Read More