ATLANTA — Most abortions would be banned five months into a pregnancy under legislation passed Wednesday by Georgia lawmakers. It's part of a national effort to halt the procedure at the point when anti-abortion activists say fetuses can feel pain, although doctors dispute that claim.
Lawmakers in the Republican-dominated House passed the bill by a vote of 102-65. It now heads to the state Senate.
If enacted, Georgia would become the sixth state to establish a so-called fetal pain law.
Abortion is legal in Georgia, though in the last three months of a pregnancy it can be done only to protect the life or health of the mother. The legislation from Rep. Doug McKillip, R-Athens, would move up that deadline by several weeks except in cases where continuing a pregnancy threatened the mother's life or health. His bill would not allow abortions sought to protect a mother's mental health, an existing exception that Georgia's largest anti-abortion group says is applied too leniently.
"We wrote a bill that demonstrates this state's commitment to protecting life from the pain of late-term abortions, not all abortions, barbaric late-term abortions," McKillip said. "It does not include a provision for a God-like determination of what is a good life, or a useful life or a futile life for that matter."
Doctors have testified at the Statehouse that scientific research shows fetuses cannot feel pain until after 20 weeks. Others said that most abortions done at that point are sought by women who learn a fetus is so badly damaged — such as when it lacks a functioning brain or lungs — that the child would face a quick and painful death outside the womb.
Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, a nurse, said she has seen children born without brains or lungs. She was one of several women, Republican and Democrat, who asked their colleagues to reject the bill.
"Making a mother carry that child to term is cruel and inhumane punishment," Cooper said.
Cooper and other opponents said middle-class or wealthy women will pay to have abortions in other states if the bill passes, while poor women who learn about complications late in a pregnancy would have to give birth.
The legislation is modeled after a 2010 measure adopted by Nebraska and later by Kansas, Alabama, Idaho, Indiana and Oklahoma. Besides Georgia, similar legislation is under consideration in Florida, Mississippi and New Hampshire, according to officials at the National Right To Life Committee.
The bills depart from the standards established by the U.S. Supreme Court which allow states to limit abortions when there's a reasonable chance the fetus could survive outside of the womb, generally considered to around 23 or 24 weeks.
Some of those who voted for the bill saw it as an opportunity to reduce abortions, regardless of the legal debate. For example, Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, said he adopted a baby girl from a woman who decided against having an abortion. He acknowledged that men are spared the decisions over when to end a pregnancy.
"But the underlying basis for my support for this bill is that there is life in that womb," he said.
Others predicted the bill could create more anguish for expectant parents who see their hopes for a successful pregnancy dashed by an unexpected diagnosis.
Rep. Stacey Evans, D-Smyrna, who gave birth to a baby girl Wednesday, spoke against the bill in a videotaped statement played for House lawmakers. She thanked them for their support during her pregnancy. She asked how it might feel when strangers innocently ask similar questions of a pregnant woman who discovers after the five-month mark that her child won't survive but cannot get an abortion.
"I can't even imagine having to answer those questions knowing I was carrying a child who might not live outside my hospital stay," Evans said.