Georgia isn’t just the latest state to ban abortion following the reversal of Roe v. Wade last month. It is also the latest state to advance one of the greatest goals of the anti-abortion movement: to legally redefine embryos and fetuses as persons, granting them rights and protections that may even exceed those granted to pregnant women.
On Wednesday, hours after a federal appeals court cleared the way for Georgia to ban most abortions as early as six weeks pregnant later this summer, the court once again stepped in and left the ban of abortion in Georgia to take effect imminently. Access to abortion is now practiced in most of the South and is rapidly disappearing in the Midwest.
“This is a highly unorthodox action that will immediately put essential abortion care out of reach for patients beyond the early stages of pregnancy,” reads a joint statement from the ACLU, l ACLU of Georgia, Center for Reproductive Rights, Planned Parenthood Southeast, and Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “Across the state, providers are now being forced to turn away patients who thought they could access an abortion, which immediately changes the course of their lives and their futures.”
But the legal repercussions of this ban will reverberate well beyond abortion. Legally recognizing fetuses as “persons” would likely dramatically rewrite huge swathes of US law.
“Fetal personality is kind of an infinitely complicated topic with potentially endless unintended consequences, because once you recognize a fetus as a person, it can have rights in all sorts of contexts,” Mary Ziegler, a professor at the University of California, Davis, School of Law which studies the legal history of reproduction, told VICE News shortly after Georgia’s ban was passed in 2019. (Until Roe’s fall, she was blocked by a legal challenge.) everything from inheritance law and tax law to civil liability rules and criminal law.
Tax law will certainly be impacted by the Georgian ban, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Technically, abortion is prohibited once a fetal “heartbeat” can be heard, normally around six weeks pregnant. (Despite the law declaring this sound a “heartbeat,” the embryo does not have a developed heart at this stage of pregnancy.) At this stage, people can claim their fetus on their income taxes as as a dependant, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
People can also seek child support at the time of pregnancy, while state officials must include the fetus in population determinations.
In 2019, a Republican lawmaker told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that private accountants had estimated that the ban could cost the state between $10 million and $20 million in taxes. However, state officials have not made a formal assessment of the potential cost.
Georgia is far from the only state with “personality provisions” baked into its once-dormant abortion laws. Earlier this month, an Arizona judge blocked that state’s “personality” law, saying it was too vague to enforce.
Proponents of abortion rights in Georgia had also sought to argue that the definition of “personhood” in their legislation was unconstitutionally vague. The law uses a domino effect to redefine fetuses as people. First, it redefines “[n]natural person” to include “any human being, including an unborn child”. Then it goes on to redefine “an unborn child” as “a member of the species Homo sapiens at any stage of development that is carried into the womb”.
But in its Tuesday ruling, the 11th Circuit dismissed that vagueness argument, though the three-judge panel also conceded, “There may be vague applications of this definition in other Georgia Code provisions.” .
As abortion bans roll out across the country and anti-abortion lawmakers, freed from Roe’s protections, rush to push their agenda, states will likely see even more “fetal personality” measures and more. no more obscure applications of these laws. Earlier this month, a Texas woman tried to evade a traffic ticket by arguing that because she was pregnant she was allowed to use the HOV lane.