With Florida’s new abortion law set to go into effect, a local state attorney has vowed not to prosecute abortion

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"Keep your laws off our bodies" sign at the “Bans Off Our Bodies” rally along the downtown waterfront of St. Petersburg, Florida. By Seán Kinane/WMNF News (24 June 2022).

With the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade and Florida’s 15-week abortion ban set to take effect this week,  Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren has joined dozens of prosecutors nationwide who say they will not press charges against people who seek, facilitate, or provide abortion care.

“When I became a state attorney, I put my hand on the Bible, and I swore to defend the U.S. and Florida constitutions. And I intend to do so,” Warren told WMNF on Wednesday.

A strict abortion law in Florida

Abortion is still legal in Florida. But a new law further restricting abortion is set to go into effect July 1st. That law, signed by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis in April, “doesn’t protect public safety,” Warren said. “It potentially criminalizes private medical decisions made between a woman and her doctor, and it’s criminalizing not just the mothers, but the doctors and the nurses, and potentially the receptionists and administrators who scheduled the procedure.”

Following the US Supreme Court’s reversal on the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, Warren joined over 80 prosecutors nationwide on Friday in signing a joint statement, vowing not to prosecute abortions. While several more have signed on since, Warren remains the only elected prosecutor in the state of Florida to sign onto the pledge, organized by Just and Fair Prosecution.

“Not all of us agree on a personal or moral level on the issue of abortion,” the group wrote. “But we stand together in our firm belief that prosecutors have a responsibility to refrain from using limited criminal legal system resources to criminalize personal medical decisions.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, 89 prosecutors from blue and red states across the country — from Georgia, to Texas, Missouri, New York and California — had signed onto the statement. After the fall of Roe v. Wade, over a dozen states (not including Florida) had so-called “trigger laws” on the books, crafted to ban abortion after the end to constitutional abortion protections. Some bans are now facing legal challenges.

‘It’s unconstitutional on its face’

Florida’s new abortion law is also being challenged in court. A lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood of America, and the Center for Reproductive Rights is attempting to block the law. Plaintiffs say it violates a privacy clause in Florida’s state constitution that’s been interpreted to include the right to abortion.

State Attorney Warren agreed. “It’s unconstitutional on its face,” he told WMNF. “Roe may have been overturned by the Supreme Court last week but that doesn’t impact Florida because Florida, unlike the U.S. Constitution, has an express privacy right in our constitution that protects abortion. It’s been there for the past 42 years, and the Supreme Court has consistently and clearly and accurately interpreted that right to be as strong as possible in protecting our privacy and our fundamental freedom.”

A South Florida synagogue has also sued Florida over its new abortion law, saying it violates religious freedoms and the privacy clause in Florida’s state constitution.

As Politico reports, thousands of people have traveled to Florida for abortions from states that have stricter abortion laws, like Georgia and Alabama. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, and Florida’s 15-week abortion limit, could change that. “Florida’s 15-week ban would have devastating effects on abortion access in the state and surrounding region,” the ACLU, one of the groups challenging the law in court, wrote in a statement.

Currently, abortion in Florida is legal up to 24 weeks of pregnancy. The vast majority of abortions performed in Florida are in the first trimester. Last year, there were 4,850 second-trimester abortions performed in the state of Florida out of nearly 80,000 total, according to a report from the state Agency for Health Care Administration.

Advocates for abortion rights say any restrictions on abortion access is an attack on bodily autonomy and human rights. Andrea Mercado of Florida Rising, a nonprofit that organizes around racial and economic justice issues, told WMNF that an attack on abortion rights is a class issue, as well as one of reproductive justice. “We know that it’s poor and low-income people who are working multiple jobs to pay the rent and put food on the table and get shoes for their kids that won’t afford to book a flight to New York to access an abortion.”

Nearly 60% of abortions in the United States are obtained by people with children. Sixty percent are in their twenties, and 49% live below the federal poverty level. People of color account for a disproportionate number of those seeking abortion.

Mercado said the determination with which Florida Republicans passed Florida’s 15-week abortion ban earlier this year, while neglecting legislation introduced to address skyrocketing rent, access to healthcare, and other quality of life issues in the state, demonstrates a core contradiction in their stated values.

“While Republicans say that they’re ‘pro-life,’ they vote against life, day after day, when they refuse to address the housing crisis, when they refuse to increase the minimum wage, and they refuse to expand Medicaid and access to health care,” said Mercado.

The group of prosecutors who signed onto the joint statement by Just and Fair Prosecution, refusing to criminalize abortion, say enforcing abortion bans would be a poor use of limited criminal justice resources. They add it could potentially re-traumatize victims of sexual violence, and divide communities.

“To best promote public safety, prosecutors must be perceived by their communities as trustworthy, legitimate, and fair — values that would be undermined by the enforcement of laws that criminalize deeply personal decisions,” the group wrote.

Anti-abortion opponents, CNN reports, have derided the statement, calling the stance “anti-democratic.” Other prosecutors in states with abortion bans told CNN they’d evaluate prosecution of abortions on a case-by-case basis.

And Planned Parenthood told the news outlet they don’t know of an abortion provider who would continue to perform abortions based on the state of a prosecutor’s statement alone — without additional protections.

The impact of prosecutors’ statements on the criminalization of abortion will likely vary state by state. Florida’s abortion law, limiting most abortions to 15 weeks, is effective July 1st, provided a judge does not issue a temporary injunction on Thursday.

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