In the wake of Friday's landmark Supreme Court decision to dissolve federal abortion protections, local elected officials in liberal-leaning areas of the state are vowing not to enforce Georgia’s strict abortion law.

The ruling ultimately gave the final say on abortion rights to state lawmakers, creating a patchwork of policies across the country.

But district attorneys in Gwinnett, DeKalb, Chatham, Athens-Clarke, Oconee, Douglas, Burke and Richmond counties say they will not criminalize abortion-related care.

More than 80 district attorneys nationwide signed a letter pledging to push back against strict abortion laws or outright bans anticipated in at least half of states. 

“Not all of us agree on a personal or moral level on the issue of abortion," the letter reads, "But 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." 

Six current district attorneys from north to south Georgia who penned their names on the letter say they refuse to use their positions to prosecute women seeking abortions and safe abortion providers.

Georgia does not have a so-called “trigger law” on the books so, although the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, abortion is still legal in the state. 

State lawmakers passed a strict abortion law in 2019 that bans abortions at around six-weeks of pregnancy — before some women even know they are pregnant. 

The law has been temporarily blocked in court, but will now likely take effect. The 11th District Court of Appeals considering the law has asked parties to file briefs within 21 days on the impacts of the Supreme Court's decision.

Those district attorneys who have sworn against prosecuting abortion crimes say they have faced heavy criticism for refusing to enforce state law.

But for DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston, that’s not what she ran for office to do. Boston said she began preparing to act after the bill was passed in 2019.

There are those at the legislature who feel that a district attorney should just enforce the laws that they passed without any regard to how that could affect the community,” she told GPB. “I am not one of those district attorneys. I believe that the people in my community elected me to make decisions that are in the best interests of the community that I serve.


‘Victims should be at the forefront’

Prosecutors standing up to Georgia’s pending abortion law argue that it puts further strain on already limited resources to address violent crime and enforcing abortion bans won’t end abortions, but will end safe abortions.

Western Judicial Circuit DA Deborah Gonzalez said that her office is still sifting through a backlog of 500 cases after the pandemic shuttered the judicial system for months — cases that involve murder, child molestation and sexual assault.

“These are things that need our attention right now,” she said. “And it's not something that we need to then take resources from that and put it towards prosecuting women or doctors for basically giving medical reproductive services and for women making private decisions.”

Augusta District Attorney Jared Williams echoed her frustration. 

“I fight gangs who kill children in the streets," he said in a statement. "I fight abusive parents who put their kids in the hospital. I fight child molesters who prey on our children. Until our community is rid of violent crime and sexual predators, I will not expend our limited resources to prosecute women and their doctors for personal health care decisions.”

Implications for the justice system go beyond bogging down already overburdened prosecutors. District attorneys also said they are particularly concerned that victims of sexual assault may be dissuaded from reporting.

Georgia’s 2019 law, House Bill 481, includes an abortion exception for victims of rape or incest, but only up to 20 weeks of pregnancy. 

“It does concern me that these kinds of measures may, in fact, lead to underreporting, which means that there could be a lot more crime happening in our community and a lot more young women victims than we will ever be able to help,” Gonzalez said. 

“The victim should be at the forefront of this conversation,” DeKalb's Boston said.

Although there is an exception for victims of sexual assault, she said, victims should not be forced to immediately report to police and go through the judicial system if they don’t feel ready.

It is widely recognized that victims of sexual assault rarely report right away and it may take years for them to come forward.

That should not be a prerequisite for victims to have (abortion-related care); that care should be first,” Boston said. “Our first and foremost importance with our victims in the criminal justice system is their mental and their physical well-being.

But, experts speculate that the actual impact of district attorneys refusing to prosecute abortion crimes would be small.

Georgia State University Law Professor Anthony Michael Kreis said that district attorneys traditionally do have the discretion to prioritize what laws they will and will not enforce.

“But for every prosecutor who said that they won't enforce this or that they won't be aggressive about it,” Kreis said, “There's going to be prosecutors out there that are going to be aggressive and who will look forward to bringing the LIFE Act and all the consequences they can into right into full force.”

The state legislature could sidestep local prosecutors and potentially create a state agency to prosecute abortion crimes. The state also still has the authority to strip a doctor who breaks the law of their licensure, he said. 

Still, Kreis explained, district attorneys could make the case that the strict abortion law may be infringing on the Georgia Constitution’s extensive privacy protections. 

“There is also a state constitutional right which is at stake and I think that as these things play out, that will also become a part of this conversation,” he said.


City council plays defense

District attorneys are not the only elected officials grasping to protect abortion rights.

The Atlanta City Council is backing a resolution that asks the Atlanta Police Department to make arrests for abortion crimes “lowest priority” and bans any government funds from being used to track where abortions are occurring.

On Friday, Atlanta city council member Liliana Bakhtiari urged cities across the state to take similar actions.

While we in the city of Atlanta cannot affect state law — because as we know we are preempted — we can set our own priorities and enforcement and do everything we can to protect women, trans and non-binary individuals seeking abortions,” she said. 

Bakhtiari said it was “standard practice” for local officials to weigh in on police prioritization and that the resolution would only impact the city's law enforcement agency. She also addressed criticism that state’s largest metropolitan leaders are voted in through non-partisan elections. 

To those of you who think I may be overstepping my boundaries as a councilperson in what is supposed to be a non-Democratic or non-Republican seat: survival is not a partisan issue,” she said. “This is me doing my job. It is our job as public servants to do everything we can to protect people's lives. And that's exactly what this is.”

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens previously endorsed the city council’s plan and said that Atlanta Police “should not be involved in women's health concerns.”

Georgia has a recent history of state and local entities battling over health care policy.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Brian Kemp clashed with Atlanta and other local governments, which instituted stricter mask and safety requirements than the Republican governor — although those battles centered around what sweeping powers the governor had.

But Kreis told GPB that while municipalities can take steps to not dedicate resources to investigating allegations of abortion crimes by women or providers, in the end there’s little that they can do to circumvent state law.

Certainly for most Georgians, I don't think municipal governments are going to be able to do much to fight back,” he said.