Pro-abortion activists and abortion providers filed a federal lawsuit against the state of Texas Tuesday in an attempt to block a pro-life law that bans abortions after a preborn baby's heartbeat can be detected and allows citizens to enforce the law with lawsuits.
The Center for Reproductive Rights, an abortion rights group, partnered with Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Texas, and various abortion providers, including Whole Women's Health, as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which seeks to block the Texas heartbeat law from taking effect on Sept. 1.
"If this oppressive law takes effect, it will decimate abortion access in Texas–and that's exactly what it is designed to do," said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights. "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. And this is happening to Texans as we are fighting another direct challenge to Roe v. Wade in the Supreme Court, out of Mississippi. We will pursue every legal avenue we can to block this and other pernicious laws."
Texas' heartbeat law requires abortionists to check for a baby's heartbeat and makes it illegal to kill that baby if a heartbeat can be heard. The enforcement mechanism of the law is unique — it empowers "any person," with exceptions for sexual abusers, to sue anyone who "aids or abets" an illegal abortion for up to $10,000 per defendant.
The language of the law means that organizations that provide support to women seeking an abortion, not just direct abortion providers, could be the target of citizen lawsuits by pro-life activists.
"This radical law will isolate people seeking to exercise their constitutional right to abortion care by targeting their entire support network and discouraging their loved ones from providing help and support for fear of being sued," said Marc Hearron, senior counsel at the Center for Reproductive Rights. "This is just the latest attempt by Texas politicians to ban abortion, but this time they've gone to a new extreme."
Abortion rights groups say the overwhelming volume of lawsuits they could receive under the law would prevent them from providing their services and could potentially cause them to shut down.
The lawsuit against Texas claims the heartbeat law violates a woman's supposed constitutional right to kill her preborn child. It also alleges that the law's enforcement mechanism is designed to make it difficult for courts to stop. Texas has "created an enforcement scheme of private lawsuits brought by the general public in an attempt to evade all legal accountability and prevent the federal courts from blocking this unconstitutional ban before it takes effect," the Center for Reproductive Rights said.
"Approximately 85-90% of people who obtain abortions in Texas are at least six weeks into pregnancy, meaning this law would prohibit nearly all abortions in the state," the organization noted. It also claims that "people living on a low income and people of color will be harmed the most by this ban" because only women with enough means to travel out of state will be able to seek abortions.
Responding, Texas Right to Life Legislative Director John Seago, who is named in the lawsuit, called it "a desperate measure by an industry that has admitted they do not fully know how to fight such an innovative and unique pro-life law."
His organization stated in a press release that the Center for Reproductive Rights' lawsuit is "legally questionable" since it was brought against "representatives of classes of individuals who might be involved in future suits."
"The abortion industry has responded to this innovative law with a far-reaching and distorted lawsuit. 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," Seago said.
Editor's Note: This article was updated on 7/14/2021 with comment from Texas Right to Life.