Hamilton County district attorney candidates differ on abortion ruling

Hamilton County district attorney candidates differ on whether to prosecute abortion providers after the United States Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade on Friday.

Republican nominee Coty Wamp said she would enforce any law signed by the governor should she win the August general election, while Democratic nominee John Allen Brooks said prosecuting the cases would be a waste of resources.

"I am a firm believer in the right of states and the people to govern themselves," Wamp said in a statement. "The 10th Amendment is very clear - powers not specifically delegated to the United States are reserved for the states. The Supreme Court ... upheld the 10th Amendment and gave the power back to the people.

"Each state legislature will now convene to enact the abortion legislation that is in the best interest of their own state," she said. "I will support, uphold and enforce any legislation that is passed by the Tennessee General Assembly and signed by the governor that addresses abortion in light of the Supreme Court's decision in Dobbs vs. Jackson Women's Health Organization."

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery is asking the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to lift immediately a federal district court's injunction on Tennessee's 2020 "fetal heartbeat" law and allow it to go into effect. The law would ban abortions in almost all instances when a fetal heartbeat is detected, usually about six weeks into pregnancy when most women may not realize they are pregnant.

Another Tennessee law comes into play as well, the state's 2019 "trigger" law, officially known as the Human Life Protection Act.

Within 30 days of Friday's ruling, it automatically bans abortion in the first and second trimesters except when an abortion is necessary to prevent the death of the mother or if there is a serious health issue posing "serious risk of substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function."

Physicians in those circumstances have to be prepared to provide proof of that likelihood as a defense to a felony criminal prosecution. A woman's mental health is explicitly excluded as a serious risk of substantial and irreversible impairment.

Women seeking an abortion would face no criminal penalties.

"My duty is to the laws of our state," Wamp said. "My obligation will be to enforce the criminal statutes that are put in place by our legislature. I will do that with fidelity as long as I am a district attorney."

Brooks told the Chattanooga Times Free Press he believed a woman's choice over her body should remain hers, and that Tennessee's trigger law would be almost impossible to prosecute against a medical provider.

"I would never prosecute anybody for taking control of their own body," Brooks said in a telephone interview. "How can you pass a law based on a constitutional right being taken away? ... When you have a court where guns have more rights than women, it is a scary thing. I've always believed, before Roe v. Wade, that women should have control of their own body.

"I think it would be a terrible thing to waste the district attorney's resources in a case like that," Brooks said, adding that women who have had an abortion would have to stand as witnesses against the medical provider in a court of law.

"Without the women, these cases would be nearly impossible to prosecute," Brooks said. "I still think that the law should be challenged before it becomes law. I think that the Supreme Court is wrong, and I think Roe v. Wade is correct."

Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston, who was defeated by Wamp in the May GOP primary and will leave the office in September, declined to comment.

Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk vowed to not prosecute women who seek abortions, according to a statement on his social media.

In 2021, the Tennessee General Assembly passed a law that allows for the state attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor should a district attorney "categorically refuse to prosecute." Medical clinics and their providers are regulated by the state, not by city or county, making it easier for the attorney general to step in.

The overturning of Roe v. Wade hands over the question of whether abortion should be legal to each state. Some states already had trigger laws that would make abortion illegal immediately or in a short period of time if Roe v. Wade was overturned.

Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Wyoming and Tennessee have trigger laws, and 13 other states are expected to pass similar measures, according to The Washington Post.

"Many of these laws are directed to providers, that's why they're shutting down immediately," American University professor Susan Carle, an expert in civil rights law and legal ethics, told the Chattanooga Times Free Press in a telephone interview.

Chattanooga does not have any known abortion providers. According to the website abortionfinder.org, the nearest is in Marietta, Georgia.

Still, the Times Free Press reached out to local law enforcement agencies and leaders to see whether there are situations that might result in criminal charges, such as doctors who provide a referral to another provider.

"It is the sheriff's responsibility to enforce any and all applicable state laws," J. Matt Lea, the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office spokesman, said in an email response.

Attempts to reach the Chattanooga Police Department for comment were unsuccessful.

Contact La Shawn Pagán at lpagan@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow her on Twitter @LaShawnPagan.

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