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Local prosecutors say they'll sidestep 'heartbeat' abortion cases

DA's can legally use discretion in cases they don't view as a priority

LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. — Prosecutors in metro Atlanta expect to remain indifferent, at best, to bring criminal cases connected to Georgia's "heartbeat" law, expected to go into effect this summer.

In Gwinnett County, the district attorney said she sees little reason to prosecute an abortion case where she’s convinced a jury won’t deliver a guilty verdict.

"You have to look at how a jury would even look at these type cases," Gwinnett County DA Patsy Austin-Gatson said. She won’t completely rule out prosecuting abortion cases – but said her office is busy enough with violent and other crimes, and that she has to set priorities.

"I do know that abortions can save a life. I’m a woman. I had a miscarriage at one time. So am I going to come under that law?" asked Austin-Gatson, who became Gwinnett County's district attorney in 2021.  "So there are a lot of things to consider there."

RELATED: Miscarriages are already criminalized. Pregnancy rights advocates fear it could get worse | Roe v. Wade

Gwinnett joins Fulton, DeKalb, Henry, Clarke and other counties where prosecutors in Democratic-controlled counties are pushing back against the Republican-led heartbeat bill. 

The measure banning abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected isn’t law yet, but is poised to be following Friday’s US Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade.

RELATED: Georgia's 'heartbeat' law still on pause as court to consider arguments on impact of overturning Roe v. Wade

"I think that law has a long way to go before it becomes one that we will prosecute," Austin-Gatson said.

Republican state Attorney General Chris Carr said in a statement released by his office: "It's a dereliction of duty for District Attorneys and Solicitors to preemptively pick and choose which laws they will enforce. It undermines the rule of law and erodes our system of self-governance."

Republican former state Attorney General Sam Olens said the state would have little power to compel a prosecutor to try an abortion case that’s within that prosecutor’s jurisdiction.

"Under the law, prosecutors are given that discretion and this is going to be their call," Olens said.  "It’s similar to prosecutors who say if they have someone with a certain amount of marijuana, they’re not going to go forward with prosecution."

Olens said it’s possible a judge could order a prosecutor to try an abortion case that’s been set aside.  But he said that almost never happens.  

   

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