Lawsuit Filed To Stop Texas Law That Pays Private Citizens To Enforce Abortion Ban

Texas wants to give individuals $10,000 if they successfully sue abortion providers and others who “aid and abet” an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy.
Supporters of abortion rights protest outside the Texas Capitol on May 29, 2021, in Austin, Texas.
Supporters of abortion rights protest outside the Texas Capitol on May 29, 2021, in Austin, Texas.
Sergio Flores via Getty Images

Reproductive rights advocates and abortion providers filed a lawsuit on Tuesday to prevent Texas’ six-week abortion ban from taking effect on Sept. 1.

The extreme legislation essentially deputizes private individuals by offering monetary incentives for them to seek out and sue anyone helping a pregnant woman get an abortion after six weeks.

The suit, led by Whole Woman’s Health, argues that Texas’ S.B. 8 “flagrantly violates the constitutional rights of Texans seeking abortion.” Abortion providers argue that the law is unconstitutional and sets up providers and patients to face endless lawsuits.

“If this oppressive law takes effect, it will decimate abortion access in Texas — and that’s exactly what it is designed to do,” Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a press release. The Center for Reproductive Rights, Whole Woman’s Health, Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the American Civil Liberties Union filed the suit, among others.

“The state has put a bounty on the head of any person or entity who so much as gives a patient money for an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, before most people know they are pregnant. Worse, it will intimidate loved ones from providing support for fear of being sued.”

The six-week ban on abortion is unfortunately not a new phenomenon. At least a dozen other states, including Georgia, Tennessee and Louisiana, have passed similar laws banning abortion around the six-week point, a period in which many people don’t yet realize they’re pregnant.

What makes S.B. 8 stand out from the pack is a provision that encourages private citizens to help enforce the abortion ban by awarding people at least $10,000 if they successfully sue an abortion provider or those who “aid and abet” a person getting an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy.

A private citizen could be anyone from a random anti-abortion advocate to a pregnant person’s abusive partner or relative. The law allows for a wide range of people to be sued, including health clinic staff, abortion fund and support networks providing financial help to patients, and religious or spiritual members who counsel a person seeking an abortion. Even someone who drives their friend to an abortion clinic could be subjected to a lawsuit under the current law.

“Our staff teams and our physicians are terrified. ... These are essential workers who kept our clinics open during the COVID-19 pandemic. How dare the government do this to them after all they’ve been through.”

- Amy Hagstrom Miller, Whole Woman’s Health and Whole Woman’s Health Alliance

The plaintiffs in the suit include several Texas abortion providers, clinic staff and clergy members who provide counseling to patients seeking abortion.

“Our staff teams and our physicians are terrified,” Amy Hagstrom Miller, CEO of Whole Woman’s Health and Whole Woman’s Health Alliance, said on a Tuesday call with reporters. “I had the opportunity to spend the last couple of days here in Austin with our Austin staff team, and they’re under so much stress. The ultrasonographer that I spent yesterday with was telling me that already she said 80% of the patients she’s been serving in the last month have been asking while they’re in the clinic on the day of their abortion if it’s legal.

“Can you imagine what that feels like as a patient and as a staff person on the ground in Texas already? And this law hasn’t even gone into effect yet,” Hagstrom Miller added. “These are essential workers who kept our clinics open during the COVID-19 pandemic. How dare the government do this to them after all they’ve been through.”

Anti-abortion activists celebrated S.B. 8 as a huge victory when the Texas state legislature passed it in May. “Our creator endowed us with the right to life and yet millions of children lose their right to life every year because of abortion. In Texas, we work to save those lives,” Gov. Greg Abbott (R), a staunch anti-abortion advocate, said after signing the bill into law.

Despite the new lawsuit, proponents of the law are still optimistic that it will go into effect in September. “We still have the utmost confidence in the innovative legal strategy and carefully drafted nature of S.B. 8 and we fully believe this pro-life priority will ultimately be upheld and save countless preborn lives,” John Seago, Texas Right to Life legislative director, said in a quote in the lawsuit.

Many reproductive rights advocates point out that “heartbeat bills” like S.B. 8 will effectively prohibit almost all abortions in the state of Texas. Between 85% and 90% of women who obtain abortions in Texas are at least six weeks into pregnancy, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights.

Texans seeking abortion are already facing an uphill battle: Current state law bans telemedicine for abortion and requires a person to receive in-person counseling and then wait 24 hours before obtaining the procedure. In 2019, the Texas state legislature was actually considering the death penalty for women who got an abortion.

“Texas has long led the country in passing extremist laws intended to chip away at Texans’ right to safe, accessible abortion care ― from imposing long waiting periods, to forcing people to undergo an unnecessary ultrasound, to requiring people to listen to false information about abortions under the guise of ‘health consultations,’” Adriana Piñon, policy counsel and senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Texas, said in Tuesday’s press release.

“Now the state is trying to prevent people from getting abortions, full stop,” she continued. “And it allows anti-abortion zealots to threaten people with lawsuits for simply trying to help a friend or relative who needs abortion care. We won’t accept these unlawful and extremist tactics, and will continue fighting for Texans’ fundamental right to make decisions about their bodies and their lives.”

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