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This Texas district attorney is one of dozens who have vowed not to prosecute abortion

District Attorney José Garza, pictured in Austin, Texas, in 2021. He is one of nearly 90 elected prosecutors from across the country who has publicly pledged not to prosecute those seeking or providing abortions.
The Washington Post via Getty Images
District Attorney José Garza, pictured in Austin, Texas, in 2021. He is one of nearly 90 elected prosecutors from across the country who has publicly pledged not to prosecute those seeking or providing abortions.

Updated June 29, 2022 at 10:40 AM ET

The U.S. Supreme Court's reversal of Roe v. Wade leaves decisions about abortion access up to states, many of which have moved swiftly to limit it.

And while dozens of states were prepared with trigger laws that would immediately ban or restrict abortions, some are now encountering obstacles in implementation and enforcement. The pushback is coming from within their own borders, in the form of legal challenges from abortion rights advocates and opposition from local prosecutors.

Judges in states including Louisiana and Utah have temporarily blocked abortion bans from taking effect in order to hear challenges against them. And dozens of local prosecutors across the country have publicly pledged not to prosecute people who seek, facilitate or provide abortions.

In a joint statement originally issued Friday, 88 elected prosecutors — mostly district attorneys and attorneys general — vowed not to prosecute abortions, calling the criminalization of abortion care "a mockery of justice."

The prosecutors come from counties in both blue and red states, including those with strict anti-abortion laws including Georgia and Texas. They collectively represent more than 91.5 million people from 30 states and territories as well as Washington, D.C., according to Fair and Just Prosecution, the group that organized and distributed the statement.

"Not all of us agree on a personal or moral level on the issue of abortion," they 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."

They argue that enforcing abortion bans runs counter to their sworn obligation to protect the safety and well-being of their communities, since it would erode trust in the legal system, divert resources from the enforcement of serious crime and lead to the retraumatization and criminalization of victims of sexual violence, among other consequences.

"Our legislatures may decide to criminalize personal healthcare decisions, but we remain obligated to prosecute only those cases that serve the interests of justice and the people," they added.

A Texas district attorney defends his promise not to prosecute abortions

One of the letter's signatories is José Garza, district attorney for Texas' Travis County, which includes Austin. He tells Morning Edition's A Martínez that in practical terms, it is now incredibly difficult to access abortion care in Texas.

A judge has temporarily blocked the state's pre-Roe ban from taking effect, but a law passed in September already bans almost all abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy. And many providers are shutting down for fear of prosecution.

Garza, like many, expects low-income and working-class people, people of color and victims of sexual assault and rape will be hit hardest by the trigger law. He sees the top priority of any district attorney as keeping people safe, and signed on to the pledge because he doesn't want members of his community suffering or dying because they're afraid to seek necessary medical attention.

"There is no question that this ruling by the Supreme Court will make our community less safe," he says. "We know that this is not going to end abortions, it will end safe abortions for too many."

Could Garza himself face prosecution for not enforcing the Texas law?

Both the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals — the state's highest court for criminal cases — and state constitution are clear that the locally-elected district attorney is the only entity with the authority to pursue prosecution in a community, according to Garza.

Noting that that's been the law since Texas' founding, he adds that "we are about to find out just how radical this Republican party is."

"Republican leadership in the state of Texas, and nationally, has demonstrated time and time again that they are willing to play politics with our public safety, that there is no length to which they will not go to score political points," Garza says. "That is the reality of our current Republican party: They are increasingly an undemocratic party that has imposed radical views not supported by the majority of the people who live in the state or this country."

While Austin stands out as a reliably liberal city in a sea of nearby red counties, Garza says that the differences between it and the rest of the state are fading with each passing day.

He says statewide leadership is out of touch with what people in his community want and need — and they are scared and angered by its stance on abortion, and particularly by what their laws mean for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Despite that, he believes people are ultimately hopeful.

"We know that the right to an abortion — which has been identified in the United States Constitution, which has been a part of our legal system for over 50 years, which enjoys widespread popular support from the people who give consent to be governed — we know that it is a right that we had to fight for to win, and that we will have to fight for to get back," he adds. "And I think the people who live in this community are ready for that fight."

This interview was produced by Kaity Kline and Chad Campbell, and edited by Nell Clark and Mohamad ElBardicy.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.