Fort Bend Couty DA joins group condemning 'criminalizing' abortion

By Joel Eisenbaum - Investigative Reporter

FORT BEND COUNTY, Texas - Elected in November as Fort Bend County's first-ever African-American district attorney, progressive Democrat Brian Middleton is among 42 elected prosecutors nationwide banding together to speak out against increasingly restrictive abortion laws in some states.

On Friday, the group Fair and Just Prosecution issued a news release with the headline: "Elected Prosecutors Use their Discretion and Refuse to Criminalize Abortion Decisions."

Texas, while not as restrictive as some other states, also criminalizes abortion in some instances.

Abortion is legal in Texas up to 20 weeks, with exceptions for special circumstances after that point.

Does Middleton's stance conflict with Texas law?

Not in his view.

Middleton said Friday that he identifies as "pro-choice" but does intend to follow Texas Law, which he said makes sense.

"What they're saying is that you won't prosecute illegal abortions," Channel 2 investigative reporter Joel Eisenbaum said, referring to the news release.

"What it says is that we as district attorneys, that our resources should not be used in that manner and it refers to legislation in other states, which does criminalize abortion," Middleton said.

How do other state laws compare?

Middleton said that state abortion laws should jive with the historic Roe v Wade decision in 1973. In his view, Texas meets that standard, but some other states, including Alabama, do not.

"There's a point where I think it should be unlawful. If you're terminating a pregnancy that is far enough along, then yes, I think that would be improper," Middleton said.

Prosecution of abortion doctors is exceedingly rare in Texas. Middleton said if the situation arose, he would make such decisions on a "case by case" basis.

States that have already passed abortion laws

On May 14, Alabama legislators passed a bill banning abortions with very limited exceptions: "to avoid a serious health risk to the unborn child's mother," if the "unborn child has a lethal anomaly" and if the woman has an ectopic pregnancy.

An amendment to exempt rape and incest victims failed to pass. The law calls for doctors who perform abortions to be treated as felons and face up to 99 years in prison.

Republican Gov. Kay Ivey signed it into law on May 15, saying the law "stands as a powerful testament to Alabamians' deeply held belief that every life is precious and that every life is a sacred gift from God." But she acknowledged that political considerations played a role in the bill's passage.

"Many Americans, myself included, disagreed when Roe v. Wade was handed down in 1973," she said. "The sponsors of this bill believe that it is time, once again, for the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit this important matter, and they believe this act may bring about the best opportunity for this to occur."

Aside from Alabama, multiple states have passed so-called "heartbeat" bills that ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected. That can be as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, before many women even know that they are pregnant.

Louisiana lawmakers passed a "heartbeat bill" on May 29, with no exceptions for rape or incest. It went to the desk of Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, who has said he would sign it.

The bill would allow for abortions preventing a pregnant woman's death or "serious risk of the substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function." Abortions on "medically futile" fetuses that would not survive past birth also are not subject to restrictions.

The bill would require an ultrasound prior to an abortion and subject doctors who perform abortions after a heartbeat is detected with a $1,000 fine or up to two years in prison.

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed a "heartbeat" bill in March. Exceptions are to prevent a woman's death or her serious risk of impairment.

"The heartbeat has been the universal hallmark of life since man's very beginning," Bryant said in an address before signing the bill.

A federal judge on May 24 issued a preliminary injunction that blocks the law from taking effect in July.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine signed into a heartbeat bill in April, a day after the state House and Senate passed the law. Similar legislation was vetoed by former Gov. John Kasich before he left office.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed a bill May 7 that would ban abortions if a fetal heartbeat can be detected. The American Civil Liberties Union has said it will challenge the law in court.

Current Georgia law allows women to undergo abortion procedures up to their 20th week of pregnancy. The new law would generally ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected and takes effect on January 1, 2020.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson signed into law a bill that prohibits abortions after eight weeks of pregnancy. It includes exceptions for what it defines as medical emergencies, such as cases when the mother's life is at risk or she is facing serious permanent injury, but not for pregnancies that are the result of rape or incest.

Kentucky passed a "heartbeat" bill in March, but a federal judge stopped it from being enforced.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed a bill in March that bans abortions after 18 weeks into a pregnancy -- six weeks before the standard set by Roe v. Wade -- except in medical emergencies and in cases of rape or incest.

Utah similarly passed a law that bans abortion after 18 weeks gestation, but the law was blocked by a federal judge in April, CNN affiliate KSL reported. The state and defendants agreed to the injunction and Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, a defendant in the case, said he won't enforce the law, KSL reported.

In Iowa, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds signed "heartbeat" legislation in May 2018, but a state judge struck down the law this January.

The judge wrote in his decision that defenders didn't identify a compelling reason for the ban. Reynolds said she was disappointed by the decision but decided not to appeal the judge's decision because she saw "no path to successfully appeal the district court's decision or to get this lawsuit before the US Supreme Court."

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