Normally, I’d say this has an excellent chance of success, given that all previous litigation over such bans have been wins for the plaintiffs. But we are in uncharted territory here.
Two months after Gov. Greg Abbott signed a law banning abortion as early as six weeks, more than 20 abortion providers responded with a lawsuit against top Texas officials aimed at stopping one of the country’s strictest abortion measures to date.
The suit was filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas.
Known as the “heartbeat bill,” Senate Bill 8 was heavily criticized because it limits abortion to two weeks after a missed menstrual cycle, a time when some women don’t yet know they’re pregnant. It aims to ban abortion after a fetal heartbeat has been detected, which is considered a misnomer as a fetus doesn’t possess a heart at six weeks’ gestation.
Around 85% of those who obtain abortions in Texas are at least six weeks into their pregnancy, according to a press release from the Whole Woman’s Health Alliance, a lead plaintiff in the suit.
“We’ve beaten back these attacks before. We can and we will do it again,” Amy Hagstrom Miller, executive director of Whole Woman’s Health, said at a press conference. “These are dark days, and it’s easy to feel like the extremists in the Texas Legislature are running the table.”
A particularly controversial provision of the law allows private citizens to sue abortion providers and others who help someone get an abortion after six weeks.
Republican legislators removed responsibility for enforcement from state officials; instead, the law allows any Texan to sue providers they think are not complying with state abortion laws, thus pushing enforcement to the civil court system. This is intended to make the bill harder to block in courts.
Marc Hearron, senior counsel for the Center for Reproductive Rights and lead attorney on the suit, said this provision could produce “endless lawsuits,” leave abortion clinics vunerable to harrassment and possible closure, intimidate pregnat women, and leave them with fewer avenues of help.
“It allows complete strangers, anti-abortion activists, to sue and interfere with the patient’s decision,” Hearron said. “Those people may try to essentially hijack the courts for their ideological agenda.”
Citizens who file such suits would not need to have a connection to an abortion provider or a person seeking an abortion or even reside in Texas. Those who win lawsuits would be awarded a minimum of $10,000 in damages, as well as attorney’s fees.
This isn’t the first time a private-citizen suit provision has been included in a Texas abortion law.
It was first tested in Lubbock, with a voter-approved city ordinance that outlaws abortions and empowers “the unborn child’s mother, father, grandparents, siblings and half-siblings” to sue for anyone who helps another person get an abortion. A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the ordinance last month, finding that Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, the plaintiff, did not have standing to sue the city.
Hearron said that his organization hopes to overcome that obstacle in the suit against the state law by naming state officials as defendants. Eight state officials were sued in the new lawsuit, including Attorney General Ken Paxton, Texas Board of Nursing Executive Director Katherine A. Thomas, and Texas Health and Human Services Commission Executive Commissioner Cecile Erwin Young.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys said they named officials who are not charged with directly enforcing Senate Bill 8 but still have authority to enforce related laws.
“If this is not blocked, if this is successful, it would set a truly dangerous precedent, because states could eviscerate their own citizens’ federal constitutional rights by creating a private lawsuit to do what their own officials couldn’t do,” Hearron said.
See here and here for more on that Lubbock situation. I don’t know if this approach will be any more successful, but I trust these folks know what they’re doing. It’s nuts to think there could be no proactive remedy against such a law, but who knows what the courts will do.
The Chron adds some details.
[Whole Woman’s President and Chief Executive Officer Amy] Hagstrom Miller said the Texas law has already impacted her facilities, making it harder to recruit new staff who worry about the near-term viability of the work and creating aggressive interactions between patients, employees and anti-abortion rights activists.
She described one scenario in which activists entered a clinic and began soliciting for whistleblowers who could provide information for future civil suits. The lawsuit names the director of Right to Life East Texas, Mark Lee Dickson, as a defendant in the case, and includes a letter purportedly distributed at one of the Whole Woman’s Health four clinics in the state.
The litigation filed Tuesday could face a difficult legal path.
Earlier this year Planned Parenthood, which has several clinics in the state, sued to block a new Lubbock ordinance that uses a similar enforcement strategy. The suit was dismissed after a judge ruled that the provider had not shown it was harmed yet by the measure. Planned Parenthood has since asked the court to reconsider, and says it has stopped providing abortions in Lubbock.
Hagstrom Miller said she and others involved in the suit, including fellow abortion providers, abortion funds, clinic staff and clergy, have been following the Lubbock case closely, and are preparing for all outcomes. While some legal scholars have suggested that providers could protest the law by continuing to perform post-six-week abortions come September, Hagstrom Miller said that would be logistically difficult, and she was not willing to ask her staff to defy a law that could leave them vulnerable to malpractice claims.
Like I said, I have no idea what to expect. I am fervently hoping for success for the plaintiffs, but to say the least it’s a tough road they have ahead of them. The Press has more.