ATLANTA — At least seven Georgia district attorneys have vowed not to prosecute abortion-related cases following the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
In the hours following the June 24 court decision, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr Carr filed a notice to the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit requesting it allow Georgia’s 2019 “heartbeat” law to take effect.
The 11th Circuit had put the law on hold until the Supreme Court made a ruling in a landmark Mississippi case, which overturned Roe v. Wade — a 1973 court decision protecting a woman’s freedom to have an abortion — on June 24.
The 11th Circuit has now asked both sides in the Georgia lawsuit — the state of Georgia and women’s health organization — to file legal briefs within 21 days before deciding on Georgia’s law (HB 481) taking affect. The heartbeat law, once in affect, will ban abortions once a heartbeat is detected, typically at six weeks.
However, the seven Georgia district attorneys, some of them representing multiple counties, have already vowed not to prosecute abortion-related cases. District attorneys from Chatham, DeKalb, Douglas, Gwinnett, Augusta Judicial Circuit, Macon Judicial Circuit and Western Judicial Circuit (Athens) have joined the movement of nearly 90 DAs nationwide.
“We stand together in our firm belief that prosecutors have a responsibility to refrain from using limited criminal legal system resources to criminalize personal medical decisions,” a joint statement from the prosecutors reads. “As such, we decline to use our offices’ resources to criminalize reproductive health decisions and commit to exercise our well-settled discretion and refrain from prosecuting those who seek, provide, or support abortions.”
Though the Georgia law is vague in who — either the woman, person performing or aiding the abortion, or both — to persecute in such abortion cases, the pending law states: “In every case of the homicide of a child, minor or sui juris , there shall be some party entitled to recover the full value of the life of the child.”
Prosecutors said they will instead continue focusing time and resources on crimes that impact public safety in an already overburdened legal system.
While the pending Georgia law provides exceptions for abortions in the cases rape, incest or medical emergencies, prosecutors argue that without those exceptions, victims of sexual abuse would be retraumatized through court proceedings.
“And, even where such exceptions do exist, abortion bans still threaten the autonomy, dignity, and safety of survivors, forcing them to choose between reporting their abuse or being connected to their abuser for life,” the joint statement reads. “Our obligation to exercise our discretion wisely requires us to focus prosecutorial resources on the child molester or rapist, not on prosecuting the victim or the health care professionals who provide that victim with needed care and treatment.”
More than half of states are banning or likely to ban abortions, and only less than a dozen have exceptions for rape or incest. Alabama is among the states without those exceptions, though exceptions are provided in the event of medical emergencies.
Jefferson County District Attorney Danny Carr is the lone Alabama DA so far who has signed on to the movement against abortion prosecution.
Shortly after the June 24 Supreme Court ruling, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall filed an emergency motion asking a federal judge to allow the state’s 2019 total abortion ban — which has been blocked due to a lawsuit challenging the proposal — to go into effect.
The judge lifted the injunction shortly after, allowing the ban to take effect. Physicians performing abortions outside of the law can now be charged with a felony.
Most of the DAs opposing abortion prosecution are in the heavier populated areas of the states.
District Attorney T. Wright Barksdale III — who oversees Baldwin, Greene, Hancock, Jasper, Jones, Morgan, Putnam and Wilkinson counties near central Georgia — said he does not foresee getting many abortion-related cases once the law takes affect due to lack of abortion clinics in his territory. He does, however, plan to prosecute such cases accordingly, if they are brought to his courts.
“Whatever laws are on the book … any case that comes to us, we’re going to review it thoroughly and make the determination as to whether or not the laws have been broken by an individual. So that’s my opinion. I think it’s a very dangerous position for a district attorney to take to say that they’re not going to enforce laws. … That that’s a pretty slippery slope in my opinion but that’s just one guy’s opinion.”
Barksdale said prosecutors should only use discretion as it pertains to evidence, or lack thereof, and the need to bring forth charges in a case as it relates to the law. Discretions should also be used in sentencing recommendations.
“We do not have the discretion in our oath (that) says, ‘You know what? We don’t like that in Georgia it’s against the law to smoke marijuana. And so we’re not going to persecute any marijuana cases or drug cases,'” Barksdale said. “With regard to discretion, to make a blanket statement that under no circumstances would I ever prosecute someone for a particular violation of the law is a very dangerous position to take and I think it almost rises to the level of the violation of oath of office .”
Efforts to reach district attorneys in Lowndes, Tift and Whitfield counties were not immediately successful.
Among the nearly 90 DAs in more than 30 states who plan not to prosecute for abortions, Virginia tops the list with nine DAs; five or more district attorneys in Colorado, Texas, Massachusetts, Michigan and New York also plan to not enforce abortion laws.
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