On May 7, 2019, Governor Brian Kemp signed HB 481, also known as the “heartbeat bill”, into law. The bill prohibited physicians from offering abortion services to pregnant women if a fetal heartbeat is present, which typically occurs at the six-week mark. Although many women do not even know that they are pregnant at this point, the only exceptions to the heartbeat rule were futile pregnancies, medical emergencies and women who are pregnant as a result of rape or incest (only if they are less than twenty weeks pregnant and have filed a police report).
By June 2020, the bill had been deemed unconstitutional after lawsuits from the ACLU, Planned Parenthood and the Center for Reproductive Rights. While HB 481 is no longer law, its short existence opened up the conversation of reproductive justice and the state of women’s health in Georgia.
The state of women’s health in Georgia is troubling. The women’s health section on the Georgia Department of Health’s website largely highlights services and topics related to family planning and healthy pregnancies. Abortion is only mentioned under the category of “Women’s Right to Know” which outlines HB 197, a bill that requires doctors to provide patients with all the possible risks of having an abortion before the procedure. There are no sections regarding sexual health, sexual assault, free women’s clinics or women’s health initiatives.
Georgia is failing its women. There is only one OB-GYN for every 7,125 women in Georgia. Further, Georgia ranks last in maternal mortality rates nationally. Black mothers are six times as likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women. Despite these issues, only 19% of women’s health centers in Georgia are publicly funded.
Improving Reproductive Justice in Georgia
Georgia is the heart of the reproductive justice movement. In 1997, SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective was formed by sixteen organizations of women of color. The group remains based in Atlanta. SisterSong’s purpose is to create a network of individuals and groups who fight to improve policy that affects the reproductive rights of minorities. They are the largest multi-ethnic reproductive justice group in America. The group is credited with popularizing the concept of reproductive justice. SisterSong defines reproductive justice as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” Reproductive justice includes passing policies that protect and expand upon women’s access to healthcare. Reproductive justice also requires an intersectional approach in which every person, regardless of their identity, is protected. Steps Georgia could take include establishing an Office of Women’s Health, instituting a statewide sexual violence policy prevention program, exempting feminine hygiene products from sales taxes, increasing access to contraceptives and expanding funding for women’s health centers throughout the state. As Georgians, we must fight for reproductive justice for all women.
In Athens Clarke County
Prioritized community health needs in Athens-Clarke County include HIV/AIDS and STDs, access to care and maternal and infant health. Nonprofit groups such as Athens Nurses Clinic and the UGA Mobile Free Clinic have helped improve access to healthcare necessities for women; however, funding for these groups could be improved. Local measures could include providing free contraceptives and creating community sexual violence prevention programs.
How We Move Forward
There are several bills to watch in the Georgia legislature regarding women’s health and reproductive justice. HB 57 requires prisons to provide proper breastfeeding equipment and breast milk storage. HB 195 improves sex education standards throughout the state, requiring that all sex education and AIDS prevention instruction be medically accurate (verified by the CDC and other prominent medical sources). HB 381 expands Medicaid coverage to new mothers to improve health outcomes. HB 382 repeals the Positive Alternatives for Pregnancy and Parenting Grant Program, which provided misinformation about medical decisions and procedures to use these funds for a better program. If passed these bills would greatly improve the state of women’s health in Georgia and continue the mission of fighting for reproductive justice.
Reproductive justice is not limited to the legislature. Each individual can do their part by taking the time to inform those around them of the barriers to reproductive equity and the importance of advocacy. Greater reproductive justice will not only benefit the women of Georgia but will benefit all Georgians.