Recent media coverage of Georgia’s six-week abortion ban, a new law which would make termination illegal before many women even know they’re pregnant, has painted a picture of abrupt, immediate reproductive dystopia. “Abortions after six weeks will now be illegal in Georgia,” reads a representative CNN headline from last Wednesday. By Saturday, some celebrities were going so far as to call for “sex strike,” ostensibly to pressure straight men into caring about their partners’ bodily autonomy. (Women “just cannot risk pregnancy,” Alyssa Milano wrote in a call to action on Twitter, as long as “our reproductive rights are being erased.”)
Georgia is one of three states to have passed a six-week ban in the past three months — Ohio and Mississippi came first. This trend is obviously a huge cause for concern: It shows that conservative lawmakers are more confident than ever that they can successfully overturn Roe v. Wade, and it lays bare the astonishing contempt they feel for women. What it does not mean, however, is that women who’ve been pregnant for longer than six weeks in the affected states can no longer get abortions.
Amid the media coverage of what the bill might mean for women, one crucial fact has been repeatedly overlooked or downplayed: Georgia’s bill isn’t set to take effect until January 1, 2020, and the two other states with similar laws are set to take effect in July. I say “are set to” because there’s a slim chance any of them will actually be enforced. They all face legal challenges from reproductive-rights groups, and will most likely be blocked by a judge. This is because, in the words of Jennifer Dalven of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, banning abortion so early on in a pregnancy is “flatly unconstitutional.” (The first-ever six-week ban, which was signed into law in North Dakota in 2013, never took effect and was permanently blocked two years later.) “Abortion is legal everywhere,” Dalven told the Cut. “These bans have not yet outlawed abortion, and we expect that we will block them before they do.”
In the meantime, the well-intentioned outrage over these laws may be doing more harm than good, misleading women out of exercising their constitutional right to choice. A 2018 survey of people searching online for information about self-terminating found that a full third either didn’t know whether abortion was still legal in their home state, or they thought it had already been banned. It seems this misinformation is now proliferating in Georgia, Ohio, and Mississippi: Providers in all three states say they’ve had patients contact them in a panic, unsure of whether it’s still legal to get an abortion or whether their appointments still stood. “We had a patient call today in tears because … she just passed the six-week mark,” an employee at a Georgia clinic told Vice. “She’s just terrified.” There is a real danger here: By circulating inaccurate information about abortion, we may push desperate women to result to illegal alternatives. But the right to end an unwanted pregnancy is still protected — on paper, at least — in every state. At least for now.
This is not to say that these laws don’t pose a legitimate threat. They do, as part of a larger, coordinated strategy to challenge Roe v. Wade. Abortion opponents hope that one of these bills will eventually make its way to the Supreme Court, where they’re confident the new conservative majority will rule in their favor. Like the 400-plus anti-choice restrictions passed in the last eight years, the recent rash of six-week bans is an unequivocal attack on the right to choose. But this is not an isolated or momentary crisis; it’s part of a larger, more insidious strategy.
Anti-abortion lawmakers have already done everything in their power to make abortion inaccessible to large swaths of the population, forcing women to travel further, wait longer, and shoulder increasingly prohibitive costs in order to obtain essential medical care. All of this is already a reality. The six-week bans are not. But by treating them as a foregone conclusion — something that has or will become law — well-intentioned pro-choicers may be helping the conservative cause, preventing those who can still get safe and legal abortion services from seeking them out.