On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union, along with Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers and advocates, filed a federal lawsuit aiming to block a controversial Texas abortion bill. The so-called “heartbeat” legislation, signed in May and set to take effect in September, will essentially block most abortions in the state, say critics. They claim the measure is unconstitutional, will intimidate abortion providers, and will pit citizens against each other by incentivizing snitching.
How the Texas Abortion Bill Is Different
Numerous states have recently tightened abortion restrictions, but Texas is trying a new approach designed to prevent federal challenges. Enforcement powers rest in the hands of private citizens, not government officials, meaning anyone can sue abortion clinics and other violators. Although the abortion-seeker herself can’t be sued, anyone who provides money for the procedure, transportation to a clinic, or even pastoral advice related to pregnancy is fair game. For a successful challenge, a citizen can receive up to $10,000.
Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, says the Texas abortion bill is putting “a bounty” on the heads of people who support pregnant women. Law professor Melissa Murray says, “If the barista at Starbucks overhears you talking about your abortion, and it was performed after six weeks, that barista is authorized to sue the clinic where you obtained the abortion and to sue any other person who helped you, like the Uber driver who took you there.”
The Reason for a New Legal Strategy
This spring, more than 300 legal professionals described the bill as an “unprecedented abuse of civil litigation” and said it “weaponizes the judicial system.” Giving enforcement power to citizens, says law professor Stephen Vladeck says, makes the measure tough to challenge and block.
John Seago, legislative director for Texas Right to Life, says pro-life groups decided to “try a different route” because federal judges were blocking abortion restrictions passed by other states. Even with the new Texas bill, he says, “There’s still quite a lot of hoops to jump through for a claimant to prevail.”
Will the Threat of Lawsuits Shutter Abortion Clinics?
The mere possibility of being sued will reduce the number of abortion providers in Texas, say abortion supporters. Marva Sadler, who oversees four clinics in the state, says, “Not only is it an attack on [abortion] access, but it absolutely feels like a personal threat as well.” Others say the law will disproportionately harm people of color and low-income women.
In May, a group of faith leaders gathered at the Texas Capitol to protest the bill. Presbyterian Pastor Andries Coetzee said it exposes too many people to legal liability. “The relationship between a parishioner and a pastor is one of sacred trust and cannot be legislated,” he says. “God alone is Lord of the conscience and not Caesar.”
When Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, signed the bill in May, he said, “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.”
Although the bill doesn’t include exceptions for pregnancies that occur due to rape or incest, it does offer a provision for medical emergencies.