Douglas County District Attorney Ryan Leonard told the Daily Report on Wednesday that women in Georgia need to be on notice that they can potentially be prosecuted for murder if they have abortions after the new “heartbeat law” takes effect in January.
“If you look at it from purely a legal standpoint, if you take the life of another human being, it’s murder,” Leonard said of the “heartbeat bill” Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law this month.
The law makes an embryo a “human being” and bans nearly all abortions from the point that medical professionals can detect an embryonic pulse, which can be as soon as six weeks into pregnancy or about a month after conception. Supporters call the legislation a “heartbeat bill.” Opponents say the name is misleading because a heart is not yet formed in the pea-sized embryo. Pro-choice advocacy groups have challenged similar laws in other states and plan to ask a federal judge to block the one in Georgia. Legislators in the nine states that have passed such bans say they hope to reach the U.S. Supreme Court to challenge Roe v. Wade.
Leonard said he has been troubled by recent public statements from some of his colleagues in metro Atlanta and Macon saying that they would not prosecute women, their doctors or both, even if the law is not blocked by the courts.
“Personally, I’m not itching to prosecute people under this law. I don’t think anybody else is either. But I think it’s improper to say, ‘I’ll never prosecute anybody under the law,’” Leonard said. “We don’t have the luxury to say, ‘I don’t like this law and I’m not going to enforce it.’”
State Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Gwinnett, also responded Wednesday to recent statements from prosecutors saying the law is unconstitutional and they will not enforce it. “I’m going to keep correcting those who play politics and mislead Georgians about what this law does,” Unterman said. “This law does not allow for the prosecution of women. In fact, many prosecutors across the state, including my own in Gwinnett, have gone on the record to clarify that fact.”
But Leonard pointed out that the law does not exclude women from prosecution, which it could have done. The law says doctors can be held criminally responsible for abortions and offers defenses for doctors and women in certain situations such as medical emergencies and rape. Leonard said that prosecutors, like judges, are bound by what the law says, not by what legislators may have intended.
“It’s clear from the statute that it is criminal. It anticipates people being prosecuted, because there are exceptions. 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.”
Leonard said he believes prosecutors need to be educating their communities before the law’s Jan. 1 effective date.
“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.”
Leonard is a career prosecutor, with 15 years of experience. He said he regularly speaks to groups of young people to educate them on Georgia law. He tells them that, if they get into a car with friends who are engaging in any kind of criminal activity, they can be held to account. He gives them the example of the getaway driver who is convicted of murder after his associates shoot someone in a robbery.
“You normally go after the most culpable people for a crime,” Leonard said. “Who actually took the life of the human being? That would be the doctor. Who is the next most culpable? The mother.”
Leonard said he thinks it’s more of a stretch to prosecute office staff or a husbands and boyfriends who drive women to clinics and offer moral support. But for women and their doctors, he said, beware.
“A lot of people have spoken out. They don’t want to sweep mothers up into this,” Leonard said. “It’s not that I want to sweep mothers up into it either. I don’t know how it can be a crime for the doctor and not the mother.”