Health Care

Doctors Fight TX Abortion Law That Asks Public to Sue Clinicians

Groups of physicians, other clinicians, and clergy filed a federal lawsuit to overturn a new Texas abortion law and stop it from taking effect on
September 1.

The suit, filed yesterday in United States District Court for the Western District of Texas Austin Division, was signed by nearly two dozen health centers, health alliances, surgical centers, rights advocates, individual providers, and clergy members.

The new law (known as the “heartbeat bill”), signed by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in May, bans abortion at 6 weeks in pregnancy, before many women even know they are pregnant and roughly 4 months before fetal viability. According to the Whole Women’s Health Alliance, a plaintiff in the suit, 85%-90% of abortions in Texas take place after 6 weeks.

Additionally, the law circumvents the usual process for enforcement. Usually government officials would be responsible for enforcing the law and if clinics or patients wanted to contest its constitutionality, they could sue those officials.

But the Texas law flips that legal approach. It excludes officials from enforcing it and instead deputizes private citizens — including people from outside Texas — to sue clinics “and anyone who ‘aids or abets’ such an abortion, or intends to do these things,” according to the lawsuit. “These civil suits are permitted regardless of whether the person suing has any connection to the abortion.”

Senate Bill (S.B.) 8 would also allow any private citizen who sues (even outside Texas) to collect at least $10,000 if their lawsuit is successful, the Associated Press reports.

That could put at risk physicians, nurses, and other healthcare workers; clergy who counsel women on abortion; and even people who give a woman a ride to an abortion clinic.

Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, also a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said in a statement that Texas “has put a bounty on the head of anyone who so much as gives a patient money for an abortion after 6 weeks.”

The lawsuit states, “Plaintiffs bring this action to challenge S.B. 8 on behalf of themselves; their staff, including physicians, physician assistants, nurses, and pharmacists; and their patients.”

It also states, “If permitted to take effect, S.B. 8 will create absolute chaos in Texas and irreparably harm Texans in need of abortion services. In particular, the burdens of this cruel law will fall most heavily on Black, Latinx, and indigenous patients, who, because of systemic racism, already encounter substantial barriers to obtaining healthcare and will face particular challenges and injuries if forced to attempt to seek care out of state or else carry an unwanted pregnancy to term.”

The lawsuit says enactment will also cause “irreparable harm” to abortion providers and organizations and individuals who help women get abortions.

Defendants include state court trial judges and county clerks in Texas, the Texas Medical Board, the Texas Board of Nursing, the Texas Board of Pharmacy, the state attorney general, and the director of Right to Life East Texas, Mark Lee Dickson.

Texas would join more than a dozen other states that have laws that would ban abortions after a heartbeat can be detected, but federal courts for the most part have blocked states from enforcing them.

Marcia Frellick is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. She has previously written for the Chicago Tribune, Science News, and Nurse.com, and was an editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, the Cincinnati Enquirer, and the St. Cloud (Minnesota) Times. Follow her on Twitter at @mfrellick

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