Gwinnett DA would prosecute unsafe abortion providers under new law

Gwinnett County District Attorney Patsy Austin-Gatson poses for a portrait on Friday, July 29, 2022, at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center in Lawrenceville, Georgia. Austin-Gatson said this week that she would prosecute providers of unsafe abortions under the state’s new restrictions, but would not prioritize cases against abortion patients. CHRISTINA MATACOTTA FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

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Gwinnett County District Attorney Patsy Austin-Gatson poses for a portrait on Friday, July 29, 2022, at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center in Lawrenceville, Georgia. Austin-Gatson said this week that she would prosecute providers of unsafe abortions under the state’s new restrictions, but would not prioritize cases against abortion patients. CHRISTINA MATACOTTA FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Gwinnett County District Attorney Patsy Austin-Gatson said this week that she would prosecute providers of unsafe abortions under the state’s new restrictions, but would not prioritize cases against abortion patients.

“If the state is able to force a situation where people can’t get that procedure, I’m concerned about what’s going to pop up in its place, in that vacuum,” Austin-Gatson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I’m very concerned about whether people are going to do things they’re not supposed to be doing, unscrupulous people trying to take advantage of women.”

After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and its constitutional protections for abortion, Austin-Gatson and more than 80 district attorneys nationwide pledged not to use their offices’ resources to “criminalize reproductive health decisions.”

Austin-Gatson later said she would prosecute abortion on a “case-by-case basis.” She clarified this week to the AJC that she would seek to investigate botched abortions to determine if unqualified, predatory abortion providers were to blame — though it would be difficult to say in advance what such cases would look like.

In developing nations where abortions are severely restricted, many are performed by unskilled people or in substandard medical environments, according to the World Health Organization and the Guttmacher Institute.

Before Roe v. Wade granted protections in 1973, many pregnant people in Georgia traveled out of state for abortions or tried to terminate pregnancies on their own, sometimes seeking medical care afterwards for complications including hemorrhaging. Illegal abortions killed at least 93 women in Georgia between 1960 and 1971, according to experts and historical archives.

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Georgia’s law, which Gov. Brian Kemp signed in 2019 but courts blocked until last week, bans most abortions after fetal cardiac activity is detected, typically about six weeks into pregnancy. A provider who performs an abortion after that point could face up to 10 years in prison and lose their license. But because the law grants embryos “personhood” status, some opponents worry prosecutors could charge abortion providers with murder.

The law grants exceptions in cases of rape or incest if there is a police report, or if the mother’s life is at risk or the fetus would not survive.

Activists and providers this past week challenged the law in state court, asking that it be blocked while their case goes on.

Austin-Gatson, a Democrat who was elected in 2020, said her office has too many cases to prioritize the prosecution of abortion patients.

“I’m just thinking about what we would have to prove as prosecutors also,” she said. “It’s going to be hard to determine: When is it valid? When is it not valid?”

District attorneys in neighboring Fulton and DeKalb counties have said they would not prosecute abortions. The Atlanta Police Department has said abortion cases would not be priorities. The Gwinnett County Police Department did not respond to questions about whether it would investigate or prioritize abortion cases.

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Supporters of the abortion law, including Attorney General Chris Carr, have condemned local district attorneys who said they won’t prosecute it.

Austin-Gatson, the first Black woman to be elected Gwinnett district attorney, said she’s gone through a miscarriage and she finds it painful to read about doctors who are now reluctant to address miscarriages for fear of prosecution.

She said she is personally opposed to Georgia’s new abortion law, but personal views can’t dictate that she never prosecute an abortion case.

“I would just hope that people in Gwinnett would understand that this is not a simple issue,” she said. “As a society, we need to be better at how we approach these types of things. We could do more to have services for families ahead of time so maybe they would not even consider an abortion or maybe they would prevent a pregnancy.”