white bald man speaking with glasses on in front of another man standing behind the podium.
State Sen. Bruce Thompson, the sponsor of Senate Bill 456 which would prevent the woman in Georgia from receiving the abortion pill mifepristone through the mail, speaks during a hearing on Tuesday, March 1, 2022, in Atlanta. (Miguel Martinez/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

A Georgia woman would have to be examined by a physician in person and sign a consent form before she could be prescribed abortion pills under a bill passed Tuesday by the state Senate.

Senate Bill 456, which passed 31-22 on a party-line vote, is part of a nationwide push by anti-abortion groups to limit the ability of physicians to prescribe abortion pills by telemedicine. It moves to the House for more debate.

The move comes a couple of months after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ended a federal rule requiring women to pick up the medication in person. The federal government had already set aside the rule temporarily during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Medication abortion in 2020 accounted for more than half of U.S. abortions for the first time, according to a survey released last week by the Guttmacher Institute. The group, which advocates for legal abortion, found pills accounted for 54% of American abortions, jumping from 37% in a 2017 survey.

Proponents of the Georgia bill say drug-induced abortion can lead to complications, so physicians need to closely monitor patients.

“This bill’s about protecting women. … We shouldn’t dismiss the importance of the physician. That’s the nature of this bill,” said Sen. Bruce Thompson, a Republican from White who is sponsoring the measure.

Opponents, though, say that the method is safe and that an in-person exam isn’t necessary and that the bill would narrow access to abortion, especially for women who are poor or live far from physicians.

“Without access, there can be no equity in health care for women,” said Sen. Kim Jackson, a Stone Mountain Democrat. “Let me be clear: The intended outcome of this bill is to limit abortion access in Georgia, so that fewer women will be able to access their constitutional rights.”

The conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court recently signaled it’s likely to make big changes to the nationwide right to abortion that has stood for nearly half a century. If the court overturns the landmark Roe v. Wade decision entirely, GOP-controlled Georgia has already moved to severely restrict abortion access, which could cause more women to seek out abortion pills remotely.

“Abortion care in Georgia is likely to be extremely restricted by this summer, after the Supreme Court rules on Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban,” said Sen. Michelle Au, a Johns Creek Democrat. “That is why this bill matters in this current environment.”

Medication abortion has been available in the United States since 2000, when the FDA first approved mifepristone to terminate pregnancies up to 10 weeks. Taken with another drug called misoprostol, it constitutes the so-called abortion pill.

The Georgia bill would require a physician to schedule a follow-up visit seven to 14 days after the medication is taken. It would also ban abortion pills from being provided at any school or college that receives state funds.

Georgia’s Health and Human Services Chairman State Sen Ben Watson speaks in favor of the Senate Bill 456, which would prevent the woman in Georgia from receiving the abortion pill mifepristone through the mail, during a hearing on Tuesday, March 1, 2022, in Atlanta. The bill would require pregnant women to see a doctor in person before being able to obtain mifepristone, the abortion pill. A doctor would also have to perform an ultrasound.(Miguel Martinez/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

The Senate bill was watered down from an earlier proposal, which would have required a 24-hour waiting period, an ultrasound, a second doctor’s visit, and a consent form that includes the disputed claim that the pills can be reversed by taking the hormone progesterone. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says there’s no systematic proof of that. The current bill says a physician can, but isn’t required, to tell a patient that it may be possible to reverse the procedure.

Most of that language was removed before the committee hearing. The Senate also adopted an amendment sponsored by state Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, a Marietta Republican and physician, along with Thompson and three other physicians in the Senate, that removed additional language

One of the amendment’s physician co-sponsors, Republican Ben Watson of Savannah said the goal of the bill is now limited, just to turn back the clock to before the federal changes.

“This puts it back to the prepandemic situation we were in before, and I think it encourages good health care,” Watson said.

But Au, who co-sponsored the amendment but opposed the bill, said that while she believes in-person care is better, it’s important to recognize sometimes that’s not possible.

Georgia would join more than a dozen Republican-led states that have passed measures limiting access to the pills, including outlawing delivery by mail.

Republican House Speaker David Ralston of Blue Ridge told reporters before the session that he’s not interested in more abortion legislation until the U.S. Supreme Court rules on Mississippi’s challenge to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that declared a nationwide right to abortion.

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