Something like this was going to happen sooner or later.
A Texas doctor stepped forward Saturday to say he had performed an abortion that is illegal under the state’s restrictive new law to force a test of its legality.
“I understand that by providing an abortion beyond the new legal limit, I am taking a personal risk, but it’s something I believe in strongly,” Alan Braid, a San Antonio OB/GYN, said in an op-ed in The Washington Post. “I have daughters, granddaughters and nieces. I believe abortion is an essential part of health care. . . . I can’t just sit back and watch us return to 1972.”
Braid said he performed a first-trimester abortion on Sept. 6, just a few days after the law known as Senate Bill 8 went into effect in Texas, making nearly all abortions illegal after a woman is about six weeks pregnant — with no exceptions for incest or rape. The doctor said he acted because he had “a duty of care to this patient, as I do for all patients.”
John Seago, legislative director for Texas Right to Life said that group “is exploring all of our options to hold anyone accountable who breaks the (Texas) law.”
“This is obviously a stunt to move forward with other legal attacks on the law,” he said of Braid’s column. “This was always something that we expected — that someone would essentially try to bait a lawsuit. So we’re just moving into the next phase of Senate Bill 8 right now.”
But the leader of another Texas-based anti-abortion-rights group, said it has no plans to sue Braid at this time.
Braid “is willfully conducting illegal abortions right now,” said Chelsey Youman, national director of public policy for Human Coalition, which operates crisis pregnancy centers across the country. “He knows he’s currently incurring liability and he may face repercussions for that . . . but for the most part that’s a choice the larger abortion clinics have not made. They’re saying they’re going to comply. We should celebrate that lives are being saved in the interim.”
Abortion rights advocates, meanwhile, praised Braid for stepping forward.
“The situation has become untenable,” said Kristin Ford, acting vice president of communications for NARAL Pro-Choice America, an abortion rights advocacy group. “Roe v. Wade has been rendered meaningless in the second biggest state in the country, and we can’t continue in that limbo,” she said.
The op-ed is here, if you have access to it. This was in fact the scenario that was predicted after SB8 was passed, that to gain a legal foothold in court a provider would need to be sued to effectively challenge the law in court. It’s a common path for such action – the groundbreaking Lawrence v Texas case began as an arrest and conviction for sodomy, which was then appealed until SOCUTS invalidated Texas’ law banning gay sex. There are other paths being taken now, from the state lawsuits that have gained injunctions on behalf of specific plaintiffs and against particular groups to the initial federal lawsuit that named defendants other than Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton – you know, the one that the Fifth Circuit stopped before it could get a hearing and which SCOTUS punted on – and the lawsuit filed by the Justice Department that names the state of Texas as defendant. The first as noted is limited in scope while the other two have yet to be tested in court.
Any or all of these could work, or not. We don’t know yet, and the two federal cases are novel in their own way. The point is that this was the path that legal experts were able to visualize from the beginning. It too may not work – SCOTUS is still SCOTUS, after all – but no one would question the ability of the provider who was targeted by the action authorized by SB8 to fight it by challenging the legality and/or constitutionality of the law.
And here in this story, we see the limit of this approach, which is that it required someone to sue the doctor (or other “abetter”) in order to get it into court in the first place. The thing is, the pro-forced-birth advocates who pushed SB8 don’t need to sue Dr. Braid. Strategically, they don’t really care if there are individual doctors who do one-off abortions. That’s a small piece of the pie. Their goal was to shut off abortion access at the big clinics, the Planned Parenthoods and Whole Women’s Health and so on. And they’ve succeeded! The number of abortions being performed in Texas is near zero. People have already internalized the idea that abortion is functionally illegal, or at least nearly impossible to get, in Texas. Sure, they want that number to be zero, but this was such a huge step in that direction they can afford to coast.
To that extent, filing those $10,000 bounty lawsuit doesn’t serve their purposes at all. They just introduce the risk that SB8 could someday be thrown out, in the same way that the omnibus TRAP law of 2013 (it was HB2 in that session and often referred to as HB2 in stories of the lawsuit against it) was eventually tossed. The thing is, though, that long before HB2 was thrown out, it had caused half of all clinics that offered abortion services to quit doing so, and thus greatly reduce access in the state. They lost their big hammer, but by then they’d pounded in so many nails it hardly mattered.
I hadn’t really thought about it before writing this post, and I haven’t seen anyone else touch on this, but I think this explains the very laid-back reaction that Texas Right to Life has had to the state lawsuit Planned Parenthood filed against them, and why they’re basically shrugging their shoulders here. The status quo at this point suits them just fine. The bounty lawsuits were never the main point of SB8. They were a means to an end, and they have already achieved that end. Why mess with success?
Now, someone who hasn’t gotten this memo could still sue Dr. Braid, and that will kick all the legal machinery that people had expected into gear. Once there is a case for the courts to act on, all of the high-powered lawyers from all of the main players will get involved, and on to SCOTUS we will march. Similarly, if one of the big clinics decides to go back to business as usual, the forced birthers will take action, because they will have to. Until then, they’re happy to wait and see what happens with the existing lawsuits. They’re playing with house money, and they know it. Slate has more.