Last updated 5/7/2019 at 12:59 p.m. ET.
Georgia became the fourth U.S. state this year to outlaw abortion after a doctor can detect a fetal heartbeat, when its Republican governor on Tuesday signed a bill that an abortion-rights group vowed to challenge immediately.
Opponents called the legislation a virtual ban because fetal heartbeats can be detected as early as six weeks, before a woman may be aware she is pregnant.
Abortion foes say the bills are intended to draw legal challenges, in hopes that a case will land before the U.S. Supreme Court, where a majority of conservative judges including two appointed by Republican President Donald Trump could overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark decision that established a woman’s right to an abortion.
“Our job is to do what is right, not what is easy,” Georgia Governor Brian Kemp said as he signed the bill, surrounded by applauding supporters.
Anti-abortion campaigners have intensified their efforts since Donald Trump was elected president and appointed two conservative justices to the U.S. Supreme Court, hopeful they can convince the right-leaning court to re-examine the landmark case Roe v. Wade that established a woman’s right to an abortion in 1973.
Kentucky, Mississippi and Ohio have passed heartbeat laws recently, and Iowa passed one last year. Courts have blocked the Iowa and Kentucky laws, and the others face legal challenges. The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia has vowed to sue to stop this law.
Even so, anti-abortion advocates have seized the political and judicial opening in their favor, introducing measures in 15 states to ban abortion as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, according to Rewire.News, a site specializing in the issue.
That has raised concerns among abortion-rights advocates about expanding “abortion deserts,” described as major cities that are at least 100 miles (160 km) from an abortion provider.
Between Georgia and Mississippi is Alabama, where the House has passed a bill that would ban all abortions unless the mother’s life was threatened and the Senate is likely to vote on it this week, raising the prospect of a giant abortion desert in the Southeast.
Ushma Upadhyay, professor of reproductive health at the University of California, San Francisco, said she was concerned for low-income women who lack the means to travel.
“This is basic health that should be available to all women regardless of where they live, how much money they make or how many children they have,” Upadhyay said.
Abortion-rights supporters see the heartbeat bills as virtual bans because fetal heartbeats can be detected as early as six weeks, when women may not be aware they are pregnant.
Georgia’s Living Infants Fairness and Equality (LIFE) Act would permit later abortions in medical emergencies. In cases of rape or incest, the woman would be required to file an official police report.
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta in New York; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)