Metro Atlanta DAs say they won’t prosecute women under ‘heartbeat’ abortion law

Several district attorneys in metro Atlanta are taking strong stances on Georgia's new "heartbeat" abortion law, saying Friday that they would not prosecute women for getting an abortion.

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The abortion ban could be postponed while it makes its way to the nation’s highest court, but local prosecutors are preparing for the possibility that House Bill 481 will take effect. The district attorneys for Georgia’s four most populous counties — Fulton, Gwinnett, Cobb and DeKalb — all told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that they would not, or could not, prosecute women under the new law.

House Bill 481 outlaws abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, when a doctor can usually detect a fetus' heartbeat. Gov. Brian Kemp signed it into law May 7, and it is set to go into effect Jan. 1 — unless it is blocked by the courts. It is almost certain to face a legal challenge, due largely to the precedent set by Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing women to have abortions until about 24 weeks into pregnancy.

But even without such a challenge, four district attorneys in metro Atlanta say they don’t intend to prosecute women who violate the law.

“As District Attorney with charging discretion, I will not prosecute individuals pursuant to HB 481 given its ambiguity and constitutional concerns,” DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston said in a statement. “As a woman and mother, I am concerned about the passage and attempted passage of laws such as this one in Georgia, Alabama, and other states.”

Due to the technical language of HB 481, district attorneys could potentially seek a murder charge against someone who violates the heartbeat law, the AJC reported Friday.

But that was not the intent of the law, according to its lead sponsor, Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth. Rather, he said, women, doctors, nurses and pharmacists can be prosecuted under Georgia’s criminal abortion statute, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.

>> Related: Who could be prosecuted under Georgia’s ‘heartbeat’ law?

“As a matter of law (as opposed to politics) this office will not be prosecuting any women under the new law as long as I’m district attorney,” Gwinnett County DA Danny Porter said in a statement. He specified that he does not think it would be possible to prosecute a woman for either murder or unlawful abortion if she got an abortion after six weeks.

In Cobb County, Acting DA John Melvin took a similar approach. He interpreted the law to suggest that a woman would not be committing murder if she received an abortion. He said women could "absolutely not" be prosecuted under the unlawful abortion statute.

Fulton County DA Paul Howard “has no intention of ever prosecuting a woman under this new law,” a spokesman said, adding that he would not prosecute abortion providers either.

Melvin left open the possibility of charging doctors or nurses in Cobb under the heartbeat law, saying that cases would be looked at on an individual basis.

“Of larger concern,” he said, “are prosecutors who indicate that they will selectively prosecute and/or ignore their oath to enforce the laws of the State of Georgia.”

Boston, the DeKalb DA, said she is opposed to prosecuting under the law, in part because it is too ambiguous about who would be held criminally responsible for an illegal abortion.

"There is no language outlined in HB 481 explicitly prohibiting a district attorney from bringing criminal charges against anyone and everyone involved in obtaining and performing what is otherwise currently a legal medical procedure," she said.

Since Georgia passed its heartbeat bill, a number of other Republican-run state governments passed similarly restrictive abortion measures, with supporters hoping to ultimately challenge the Roe v. Wade decision. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed legislation on Wednesday that would make performing an abortion a felony in nearly all cases, and does not make an exception for cases of rape or incest. On Friday, Missouri lawmakers passed a bill banning abortions after eight weeks.

Credit: Wikicommons

Credit: Wikicommons

More than a dozen other states have passed or are considering versions of Georgia's law.

The day Kemp signed Georgia's heartbeat bill, groups like the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia vowed to sue. Many in the entertainment industry threatened to boycott Georgia.

"We're putting lawmakers on notice: Your votes are far outside the mainstream, and we will now spend our time and energy launching a campaign to replace you," Staci Fox, the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Southeast, said at the time.

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