Georgia ‘heartbeat’ bill will force a lot of men to pay, literally

Governor Brian Kemp signed the controversial “heartbeat” bill into law on May 7.
Governor Brian Kemp signed the controversial “heartbeat” bill into law on May 7.
Image: Reuters/Chris Aluka Berry
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Like most US laws about women’s reproductive choices, Georgia’s new “heartbeat bill” that bans abortion after six weeks will have a significant impact on men’s lives as well.

The new Georgia law, signed recently by governor Brian Kemp, essentially criminalizes abortion before many women, or their partners, are aware of a pregnancy, health care providers say, which could lead to an uptick in unplanned births in the state.

Although the Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 decision gives a woman the right to choose whether or not to terminate a pregnancy, men are frequently part of the decision-making process as well. Almost half of all US abortions involved couples either married or cohabitating. Overall, an estimated one in four men have “had” an abortion in America.  (The term “had” here to is used to describe a man involved in a pregnancy that results in a termination.)

Combined with Georgia’s existing state laws, the new law could mean many more men shouldering a hefty financial burden for years if they are involved in a pregnancy with a woman in the state, whether have an ongoing relationship with her or not.

Firstly, like most other US states, Georgia has relatively robust child support laws. A “non-custodial parent,” or the parent any child doesn’t live with (the man in about 80% of the cases in the US), is required to turn over a significant portion of his income in Georgia to the custodial parent until the child finishes high school, or is 20 years old, whichever comes first. That amount now depends on a calculation of both parents’ income and health care costs; 20% of gross pay was standard in Georgia in the past.

Georgia, like other states, uses DNA testing to establish paternity, and claims an excellent record of tracking down men who owe child support. Georgia’s department of health has established paternity in 97% of the cases it handles (pdf, pg. 12) and issued support orders in 90% of the cases. The state had 31 “parental accountability courts” across the state that can issue orders to pay child support, and was adding 11 more in fiscal year 2018.

In addition, men who impregnate a woman in Georgia are also likely to bear the cost of prenatal care and childbirth bills, based on state legal precedent. Georgia’s Supreme Court ruled in 1993 in favor of a mother who asked for $15,500 in pregnancy and birth-related expenses from the father of her child, stating that:

the duty to protect and maintain a child includes the duty to ensure that the child receives adequate medical care prior to and during birth. It cannot be disputed that the state has a significant interest in the health of its children which, we conclude, the legislature sought to further by this provision of the statute. Neither can it be successfully argued that a child’s prenatal care does not impact on postnatal health. Additionally, this is consistent with our holding that an unwed father’s constitutionally protected “opportunity interest to develop a relationship” with his child begins at conception.

Georgia’s rising childbirth costs may be borne by US taxpayers overall, too. About half of all births in Georgia are currently covered by Medicaid.

Men who don’t pay child support in Georgia can have their paychecks garnished, their drivers’ licenses suspended, and be referred to credit bureaus. In fiscal year 2017 (pdf, pg.5), Georgia’s Child Support Services had 555,000 children in its system who were distributed $745 million from 370,000 parents who owed support.

Governor Kemp’s office didn’t answer inquiries from Quartz on whether it had estimated how those figures might change after the new law goes into effect.