A broad group of abortion providers and pro-choice advocates joined forces Tuesday by filing a federal lawsuit they hope will block Texas’ recently passed law — that would ban abortions as early as six weeks — from going into effect later this year.
Senate Bill 8, the controversial bill which sailed through the Republican-dominated Texas Legislature several weeks ago and was signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott, seeks to ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected which can be as early as six weeks. Since many women don’t even realize they’re pregnant at that point, abortion advocates argue the law amounts to an effective total abortion ban in Texas.
Tuesday’s lawsuit was filed in Austin’s United States District Court for the Western District of Texas, and was organized by Whole Woman’s Health, Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and several other abortion providers and abortion support funds.
“Access to abortion in the state of Texas is under attack by hard-right, mostly white, mostly male politicians who do not represent the kindness, decency, diversity and shared values of the majority of Texans,” said Amy Hagstrom Miller, President and CEO of Whole Woman’s Health during a media call announcing the lawsuit effort.
One of many so-called “heartbeat bills” passed by conservative legislatures across the country in recent years, the laws’ language around pregnancies before six weeks are based on the claims of anti-abortion advocates about how that’s the point a fetus’ heartbeat can be detected in an ultrasound, though medical professionals say such signals are simply electrical activity by clumps of cells and definitely aren’t signs of functioning organs.
Every other “heartbeat bill” has been blocked by courts from going into effect, but Texas Republicans specifically designed SB 8 to be more difficult for courts to preemptively halt by putting enforcement in the hands of everyday people versus specific government officials.
SB 8 allows any person, even if they don’t live in Texas, to sue any person who performs an abortion of a fetus at six weeks gestational age or older, or any person who aids or abets someone who gets such an abortion, for up to $10,000 in damages. Any individual thought to have performed such an abortion, helped someone get that abortion or even discussed the possibility of whether not someone should have that abortion would be held liable under the law, and each of those people could be sued by an unlimited number of anti-abortion activists.
“We’ve never seen a law like this,” said Marc Hearron, senior legal counsel for the Center for Reproductive Rights serving as a main attorney on the lawsuit. “If this law takes effect, anti-abortion protesters could use this law to harass clinics with endless lawsuits that consume their time and resources, and could force them to shut down. The friends, loved ones, and support networks of people seeking abortions could be intimidated out of helping them due to fear of being sued.”
“This is what Texas politicians wanted when they passed this law: to turn anti-abortion extremists into vigilantes with the power to police clinics, their staff and their patient support systems,” Hearron continued.
The Reverend Dr. Daniel Kanter, minister at First Unitarian Church in Dallas, blasted SB 8’s backers for trying to legislate the private conversations he and other clergy members have with their concerned parishioners on the often difficult decision about whether or not to have an abortion.
“The law threatens to interfere with what we as faith leaders can and cannot talk about,” Kanter said. “And we might all ask this question: what’s the next thing that we’re not going to be allowed to talk about in the privacy of our counseling sessions?”
“The idea that the state gets to decide what we can discuss in the protected confessionals and faith-based conversations in churches and synagogues is frankly un-American and unethical,” he continued.
“Faith leaders should be in no way limited around our ability to guide and counsel, and as SB 8 is written, it is possible that whether a clergy person is for or against the abortion, any discussion leading up to a family making a decision to have an abortion could be sued, because we don’t control what happens when the members of our communities leave our care or our offices,” Kanter cautioned.
In a creative twist, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed Tuesday decided to broadly sue every single state court trial judge and county clerk in the state of Texas, seeing as those civil court officials would technically be the ones processing and hearing the court cases based on any lawsuits filed under SB 8.
If a federal judge grants an injunction to block SB 8 from going into effect as those filing the anti-SB 8 lawsuit hope, those state civil court officials would be blocked from allowing those abortion cases to be heard in civil court.
The lawsuit also names as defendants the directors of the Texas Medical Board, the Texas Board of Nursing, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission and the Texas board of Pharmacy, as well as Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.
“Although those officials are not charged with directly enforcing the six-week ban, they do have the authority to enforce other laws through their existing statutory authority, and could enforce those laws in reaction to the violations of the six-week ban, by taking licensing actions [against abortion providers] for example,” Hearron explained.
Unless a federal judge grants an injunction to block the law from being enforced, SB 8 will go into effect on September 1. As is usually the case with abortion restrictions, SB 8’s provisions would disproportionately affect poor Texans in minority groups who wouldn’t have the resources to, for example, travel out of state to get an abortion after six-weeks if the law goes into effect.
Dr. Bhavik Kumar, an abortion provider with Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, said he’s “never felt more outraged or angry than I did when this egregious and inhumane law was passed.”
“As a physician, I can think of few things more unethical than denying a patient care that I can safely provide, knowing they may seek unsafe alternatives,” Kumar said. “This is why I trained in providing abortion care, and why I chose to do this work in Texas, where access is already abysmal. I’ve also seen firsthand the way that abortion restrictions always disproportionately impact people of color, low-income folks, young people and undocumented people.”
“While we are tired of the relentless attacks on people we know and care for directly, no matter what, we will continue to be here for them in any way that we can,” Kumar said. “We will serve our patients with the dignity and respect that the state does not extend.”
The full federal lawsuit:
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