I appreciate the sentiment, but that’s not how it works.
Even before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade on Friday, local prosecutors in several of the largest Texas counties vowed not to file criminal charges in abortion-related cases, seemingly offering hope for those seeking a way around the state’s impending abortion ban.
But those counties are unlikely to serve as abortion safe havens in post-Roe Texas, legal experts and abortion rights advocates say, largely because clinics still face the threat of legal retribution even in counties with sympathetic district attorneys. And the penalty for those who continue offering the procedure is steep — up to life in prison and at least $100,000 in fines under Texas’ so-called trigger law, which will soon outlaw nearly all abortions, starting at fertilization.
While Attorney General Ken Paxton cannot unilaterally prosecute criminal cases unless authorized by a local prosecutor, he is free to do so for civil matters anywhere in Texas. That means district attorneys may shield clinics and physicians from the trigger law’s criminal penalty of a first- or second-degree felony, but Paxton could still target them for six-figure civil fines, said Sandra Guerra Thompson, a law professor at the University of Houston.
She also noted that abortion providers could be found criminally liable if an incumbent district attorney reconsiders or is replaced by a successor who wants to pursue abortion-related charges.
The trigger law, which takes effect 30 days after a Supreme Court judgment overturning Roe v. Wade, makes no exceptions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest, nor for severe fetal abnormalities. It carries narrow exemptions for abortion patients placed at risk of death or “substantial impairment of a major bodily function.”
Still, some prosecutors could begin pursuing criminal charges immediately based on Texas statutes that pre-dated Roe but were never repealed by the Legislature, Paxton said Friday. Those laws prohibit all abortions except “for the purpose of saving the life of the mother.”
In any case, it’s unlikely that abortion providers will take the risk. They are already bound by the state’s six-week abortion ban, which allows people anywhere in the country to sue providers or those who help someone access the procedure in Texas after fetal cardiac activity is detected. Successful litigants win damages of at least $10,000 under the law.
We’ve discussed this before. There are things that cities and individuals can do to hinder law enforcement or prosecutorial efforts to enforce anti-abortion laws, but one way or another they are going to be enforced, very likely via increasingly intrusive and draconian means. If somehow local DAs refuse to pursue cases, the Lege will change the law to go around them, either to the Attorney General or to neighboring counties – Briscoe Cain is already planning to file bills to that effect. We can’t succeed at this level. The only way to fight it is to have power at the state level, and that’s going to mean winning statewide races and/or winning enough seats in the Lege to take a majority in the House. Even that is at best a defensive position – we are not taking over the Senate, not even in the most wildly optimistic scenario I can imagine – but it’s the best we can do, and it would definitely reduce the harm that is otherwise coming.
One more thing:
Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg also slammed the Supreme Court decision, arguing that the “criminalization of reproductive health will cause great harm to women in America.” While she added that “prosecutors and police have no role in matters between doctors and patients,” she stopped short of a blanket vow to not prosecute alleged violations of state abortion laws.
“As in every case, we will evaluate the facts and make decisions on a case-by-case basis,” said Ogg, a Democrat.
I’m including this because as far as I can tell it’s the first time Ogg has spoken publicly about the coming anti-abortion enforcement wave. I seriously doubt that Kim Ogg will want to pursue any cases that are filed with her office, but I also doubt that she’ll just ignore them. Maybe she’ll take a broad “prosecutorial discretion” stance, but again, if she does and if nothing changes with the November elections, that discretion will be taken away from her. There just isn’t much she or anyone in her position can do about this. We need to be clear about that.