David Cooke David Cooke, Macon district attorney. (Photo: John Disney/ALM)

The district attorney in Macon said Tuesday he will not prosecute women or their doctors for abortion services despite the ban signed into law this month that imposes criminal liability for abortions performed after six weeks of pregnancy.

Macon Judicial Circuit District Attorney David Cooke sent a statement to media Tuesday.

“Our office has received multiple requests for comment about Georgia’s new Heartbeat law,” Amy Leigh Womack, community engagement officer for the DA’s office, said when she emailed Cooke’s answer.

“As district attorney, I swore an oath to uphold the Constitution and I intend to honor my oath,” Cooke said. “My office will continue its long-standing practice of supporting and protecting women who are in crisis, rather than prosecuting them.”

“I will exercise my discretion not to prosecute women and doctors for exercising their constitutional rights,” Cooke said. “It’s unfortunate that this law may turn a miscarriage into a crime scene and I will not allow that to happen on my watch.”

Some other metro Atlanta prosecutors have said they wouldn’t prosecute women under the law. Cooke is the first to take a stand specifically for women’s doctors.

The General Assembly passed the bill this year, and Gov. Brian Kemp signed it into law this month. It bans abortion in Georgia as soon as an embryonic pulse can be heard with an ultrasound. That point comes at about six weeks of pregnancy, or two weeks after conception, when the embryo is the size of a pea. Supporters call the sound a heartbeat. Opponents say the sound is not really a heartbeat because the heart hasn’t formed.

The law’s effect on women has been a source of debate and uncertainty, with sponsors of the bill saying women wouldn’t be prosecuted but adding an “affirmative defense” to allow them to argue in court that they had the abortion to save themselves—similar to a self-defense argument in a murder case.

The law clearly makes doctors and medical professionals and other clinic staff subject to criminal prosecution for performing or assisting in abortion services. The law also allows for investigations of women who lose a pregnancy to miscarriage—as 1 in 3 do.

The Medical Association of Georgia lobbied against House Bill 481 because of its reach into medicine. In a letter to the state Senate sponsor of the bill, Sen. Renee Unterman, MAG President Dr. Rutledge Forney said the group “opposes the bill because it would criminalize physicians practicing within their standard of care, creates a new civil cause of action against physicians, could undermine efforts to recruit and retain OB-GYN in Georgia, and could further restrict access to health care in rural Georgia.”

As Cooke’s office was sending his statement to news outlets across the state, protesters were gathered in front of the Georgia Capitol demonstrating in unison with activists across the country in a national call to action tagged #StoptheBans on social media.

Georgia was the seventh state to pass a near-total abortion ban. Two more have followed since. Others are being considered.

The so-called heartbeat bill was created by Janet Porter, an Ohio activist and former pro-life lobbyist who started a network of organizations to promote bans, Faith2Action. The group’s website includes a model heartbeat bill with the state name blank. It also includes resource groups that offer legal assistance for opposing abortion, same-sex marriage and gun control.

Porter said the bill was “carefully crafted to be the arrow in the heart of Roe v. Wade—a bill born to go to court.”

Also Tuesday, Mississippi’s heartbeat law was being challenged in federal court. Advocacy groups are working on challenges to the bans in Georgia and other states.