The local pushback to Georgia’s new anti-abortion law has begun

In county courthouses and city halls around the state, elected officials are exploring new ways to blunt the sweeping restrictions at the center of Georgia’s new anti-abortion law.

Some law enforcement agencies in left-leaning communities say they won’t devote public resources to investigating potential violations. Some mayors are exploring ways to deprioritize the legislation. And several prosecutors have already said they won’t bring potential violators to court.

The rapid response underscores the gaping political divide over the Republican-backed law, which took effect last week following a federal appeals court’s ruling. While some officials in conservative areas trumpeted the new limits, leaders in more liberal areas have sought ways to defy the law.

“The fight is now moving to a local arena. Local officials are trying to strike back at the element of fear surrounding this new law,” said Athens-Clarke Commissioner Tim Denson. “We can help ensure that woman won’t have to fear they will be investigated.”

The maneuvering highlights not only the shifting contours of the battle over abortion access, but also the prospect of backlash from Republican supporters of the newly implemented state law, which bans the procedure as early as six weeks for many women.

Attorney General Chris Carr has repeatedly blasted his Democratic opponent, state Sen. Jen Jordan, after she vowed she wouldn’t defend the 2019 law in court if she defeats him. Conservative activists who have long fought to restrict abortions say their top priority is now implementing the restrictions.

And some Republican lawmakers are discussing whether to introduce legislation that could penalize prosecutors and police officials who don’t enforce the law. The talks are in the earliest stages, but legislators are being egged on by some activists who are calling for sanctions.

“We should be in the baby saving business in Georgia,” said Andrew Abbott, the chair of the Georgia Young Republicans. “And that means punishing those who refuse to enforce laws that protect unborn babies.”

‘Safe harbor’

Some of the sharpest clashes could unfold in courtrooms around the state, where prosecutors will face thorny questions about how — and whether — to enforce the new restrictions.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution survey of each of the state’s 50 district attorneys revealed at least seven who say they won’t prosecute violators of the law in their district.

About a dozen prosecutors said they’ll address potential violations of the law on a case-by-case basis, while the majority could not be reached for comment after multiple attempts including phone calls and emails.

Pete Skandalakis, the head of the Prosecuting Attorneys Council, said he’s encouraged local prosecutors not to make any public statements about how they’ll handle the anti-abortion law until a case comes before them.

“My advice to them has been: You don’t have a case in front of you. There’s no point to make any decision at this time,” he said.

But there won’t be a case to prosecute if local law enforcement officials don’t investigate possible violations.

The Atlanta Police Department staked a position early that its main priority will continue to be combating guns, gangs and drugs. Law enforcement agencies in other Georgia cities, including Savannah, are considering similar steps.

In Athens-Clarke County, local officials are poised to pass legislation to oppose the use of any public funds to record or investigate reports of abortion care except in limited circumstances and ensure that reproductive care coverage is included in government insurance plans.

“We know we’re in a unique situation,” said Denson, the commissioner, “and we want to make sure Athens-Clarke County is a place where women know they won’t face any consequences if they seek abortions or reproductive health needs elsewhere.”

City of South Fulton Mayor Khalid Kamau has pressed legislators to pass a resolution that aims to make the municipality a “safe harbor” for women seeking abortions. He also said he will propose a city-financed travel fund to help women pay expenses to travel to other states with more permissive abortion laws.

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Being able to plan families is one the most important ways for Black and Brown women to control their financial future,” he said. “As someone who has sat with a young lady in an abortion clinic, I just don’t think the medical decisions being made in those rooms are the business of anyone outside of them.”

‘Dereliction of duty’

The pushback from local officials heightens the possibility of a tense showdown with state Republican officials who have long championed the new restrictions.

Carr, the state’s top law enforcement official, has blasted the “Democrat DAs” who say they won’t prosecute potential violations of the anti-abortion law. And he’s condemned Jordan, whose floor speech three years ago against the abortion limits went viral, for vowing not to defend the law in court.

“Their job is to uphold the laws of this state, and their preemptive refusal to do so is not prosecutorial discretion, it’s dereliction of duty,” said his campaign manager, Neil Bitting. “If you don’t like the laws, you should run for the Legislature, not DA or Attorney General.”

Skandalakis said he doesn’t think the AG’s office has the power to force prosecutors to pursue such cases.

“Can they look at some other avenue? Perhaps,” he said. “But the AG can’t tell a DA what to do.”

Democrats hope the prospect of stiff state pushback will become a moot point after November. They anticipate a wave of voters infuriated by the Supreme Court ruling that paved the way for the new anti-abortion law to exact revenge on Republican leaders.

“Chris Carr played politics with women’s lives,” said Jordan, “and he’ll pay the price in November when we vote him out.”

Staff writers Shaddi Abusaid, Tyler Estep and J.D. Capelouto contributed to this article.