A Georgia House committee approved legislation on Wednesday that would ban most abortions of fetuses for which doctors can detect a heartbeat.
The proposed bill would rank among the nation's most restrictive abortion laws. It passed after hours of emotional debate.
Currently, Georgia law allows women to seek abortions up to 20 weeks into a pregnancy. House Bill 481 would seek to prevent abortions of fetuses with heartbeats, which can be detected as early as 6 weeks into pregnancy.
The bill will now move to the house for full consideration. It must be passed on Thursday in order for it to be approved by the Senate this year.
Abortion debate rages in Georgia:
Supporters of the bill argue that life begins at conception. But the proposed bill seeks to find middle ground with opponents of pro-life legislation by putting the limit for when abortions can be performed at the moment when the heartbeat can be detected in the fetus.
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.
"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."
However, critics of the law counter that it violates women's reproductive rights and endangers women's health. They argue further that the bill could lead to unsafe self-induced abortions and contribute to the shortage of obstetricians in Georgia.
Doctors weighed in from both sides:
A group of mostly female lawmakers and health care advocates and professionals lined up to speak against the bill.
Dr. Melissa Kottke, who is on the advisory board of Georgia's OB-GYN Society, said, “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.”
According to NBC News, the Wednesday hearing was "tense and emotional with several outbursts slowing proceedings and activists and citizens moved to tears on both sides of the issue."
Dr. Kathy Altman, a retired OB-GYN who briefly worked as a medical director for Planned Parenthood in Florida in the 1980s once supported abortion, testified in favor of the bill. Altman spoke about an abortion she said she now regrets having.
"I wish there had been a heartbeat bill back then," Altman said. "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."