As Utah defends its strict new abortion ban in court, the chief prosecutor overseeing the county with the state’s only two clinics has said he won’t enforce the measure, marking latest example of an official resisting strict anti-abortion measures in states around the country.
Democratic Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the ban on abortions after 18 weeks appears unconstitutional, so filing felony charges against doctors as a court challenge plays out could violate their rights.
“I think that’s the only legal and ethical thing for me to do, which is not use the power of my office to violate the constitutional rights of my citizens when there is well established precedent that says it is unconstitutional,” he said.
That statement and another from Michigan’s attorney general come as more GOP-leaning states around the U.S. pass increasingly restrictive abortion laws, including an Alabama measure approved by lawmakers on Tuesday that would outlaw almost all abortions in the state.
Even as anti-abortion advocates are optimistic about challenging Roe v. Wade in front of the U.S. Supreme Court’s new conservative majority, blue-leaning states are moving to secure access to abortions.
Against that backdrop, pushback from prosecutors could become more common, especially in politically mixed areas, said Mary Ziegler, a professor Florida State University College of Law. Prosecutors also have a lot of discretion behind the scenes how laws are enforced because they decide who to charge and what cases to file. Before the 1973 decision legalizing abortion, many bans weren’t enforced unless there were complications, Ziegler said.
“You’ll see more statements of this kind. But how they’ll be enforced is much more complicated than what first may seem to be the case,” she said.
Most laws also have exceptions — Utah’s law has allowances for cases of rape, fatal fetal deformity or serious detriment to a mother’s health.
Gill secured a federal order on Monday confirming his office won’t have to enforce the measure as a court challenge plays out.
The ruling goes a step further than an injunction agreed to by the state that delays implementation of the law until a lawsuit challenging it is decided. It means that if the state wins at the lower court, Gill’s office would also delay any enforcement during an appeal.
If the law is eventually upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, though, Gill said he likely would have to enforce it.
“My job is to keep my personal beliefs out of it, but I absolutely believe that our citizens have constitutional rights and our institutions have an obligation to serve those citizens and not simply roll over and play dead,” he said.
The Utah Attorney General’s Office declined to comment Wednesday on Gill’s position.
Michigan’s attorney general, Democrat Dana Nessel, pledged at a state Planned Parenthood conference last month not to enforce the state’s pre-existing abortion ban if Roe v. Wade is overturned.