By Sherry Boston
Today is a dark day. Although a leaked draft opinion raises expectations should Roe v. Wade is lifted, the reality of that moment still stings. Fifty years of well-established precedents have been shattered, leaving fear and uncertainty in their wake. Across our country, reproductive rights and private health issues are under attack and vulnerable to criminal scrutiny and prosecution.
Georgia is no exception. In 2019, HB 481, better known as the Heartbeat Bill, was signed. Legislation bans abortion as soon as heartbeat activity is detectable — typically about six weeks into a pregnancy — before many women even know they’re pregnant. The anti-abortion law, due to go into effect in 2020, was held up by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that it would await the US Supreme Court’s complaint before making a final decision on the bill constitutionality.
So what now? If, or probably now, when Georgia’s “heartbeat” law goes ahead, what will be the implications for women, their providers and those who help them achieve abortions beyond the six-week timeframe? What is the penalty for defiance? The penalty for seeking basic medical care? Under this action, a district attorney could file criminal charges and impose prison terms on individuals involved in seeking, performing and/or assisting with an abortion.
I believe that law enforcement agencies and prosecutors should not be pushed into this area of health, regardless of the legislation in force. As such, I swear as the elected District Attorney with discretionary powers for the Stone Mountain Judicial Circuit (DeKalb County). Not To prosecute persons under HB 481. I believe it is a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body and medical care, including but not limited to having an abortion.
Prosecutor’s discretion is not a new concept. From deciding whether to refer a case to a court of accountability, to prioritizing violent crimes over non-violent crimes, to deciding not to press charges at all, prosecutors’ discretion is central to our work and a responsibility I not to be taken lightly.
To be clear, I do not simply “choose” which laws I will enforce and which I will not enforce based on my own beliefs. I reject the notion that we, as elected prosecutors, should blindly enforce or “label” laws without self-examination and questioning of the greater good of the community. As a matter of context, adultery remains a crime in Georgia, but I can’t imagine any of my DA colleagues in the state would press charges like that. For the record, neither do I.
It is my duty to conduct law enforcement actions that are in the best interests of the community for which I was elected and with public safety in mind. The criminalization of abortion undermines public safety and public trust. In addition, it threatens the life, health and well-being of marginalized individuals, whose access to safe abortion procedures is more restricted than others. We create dangerous “have” and “have-not” scenarios that run counter to the very foundation of public safety. It is my job as a prosecutor to ensure that the laws I pursue are enforced fairly and equitably without causing undue harm to the public.
That is why I am concerned today for the victims and survivors who most urgently need access to safe healthcare options or criminal justice resources following an attack or personal trauma. My greatest fear is that they will now retreat into the shadows, or back alleys if you will, amid the darkness that now looms over our land. But where there is fear, I pray there is also hope and a glimmer of light focused on my determination to uphold my prosecutorial authority and discretion not to criminalize abortion services. May this thought bring some comfort to women and providers in my community on this dark day.
Sherry Boston is elected prosecutor in Deklab County, Georgia