Douglas County District Attorney Ryan Leonard told Law.com’s “Daily Report” on Wednesday that women in Georgia should prepare for the possibility that they could be criminally prosecuted for having an abortion if the law signed by Governor Brian Kemp takes effect as planned in January of next year.
“If you look at it from purely a legal standpoint, if you take the life of another human being, it’s murder,” Leonard told the outlet. Leonard is the first of the state’s district attorneys to declare that interpretation of the law publicly. Others, including the district attorneys for DeKalb and Macon counties, have said they would not seek to prosecute women under the new law.
House Bill 481, or the Living Infants Fairness and Equality (LIFE) Act, outlaws abortion after a fetal heartbeat can be detected (typically at or about six weeks into a pregnancy). The confusion over whether pregnant women could be criminalized stems from a provision in the new law defining unborn children as “a class of living, distinct persons” worthy of all protections afforded by the U.S. Constitution.
Legislators on both sides of the bill had differing opinions about whether it criminalizes pregnant women. Republican state Sen. Renee Unterman, who sponsored the legislation, said it “does not allow for the prosecution of women,” while her colleague in the House, Republican state Rep. Ed Setzler, who also supported the measure, says it allows for women to be criminally prosecuted for a lesser crime punishable by 10 years in prison, but not for murder. Democratic state Sen. Jen Jordan, who voted against the bill, has said it is clearly written to accommodate the criminal prosecutions of women.
Whatever legislators intended, Leonard said, is irrelevant at this point; district attorneys like himself are guided by the law as written, and the LIFE Act is written in a way that anticipates the criminal prosecutions of mothers. Leonard pointed to exceptions written into the law, including one clause that exempts from prosecution any pregnant woman who “reasonably believed that an abortion was the only way to prevent a medical emergency.”
“They wouldn’t outline exceptions or exemptions if they didn’t anticipate criminal prosecution,” Leonard said. “Based on my review, the only crime it could fall under is murder. Nothing else criminalizes this conduct.”
Most expect the unconstitutional law will be blocked before January 2020, when it is set to take effect. If it’s not, Leonard says the state’s women should be ready to be prosecuted should they violate it. “Women need to be made aware. You may not agree with the law. But whether you agree with it or not, it could potentially result in serious consequences if you violate the law,” Leonard said. “The only way to be 100% sure you’re not prosecuted under it is not to have an abortion. That’s the way the law stands today.”