Texas doctor who defied the state’s abortion ban is sued in first test of new law
Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP, File
In this Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021 file photo, Barbie H. leads a protest against the six-week abortion ban at the Capitol in Austin, Texas.
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The Supreme Court allowing a new Texas law that bans most abortions is the biggest curb to the constitutional right to an abortion in decades, and Republicans in other states are already considering similar measures.
The law prohibits abortions once medical professionals can detect cardiac activity, usually around six weeks — before some women know they're pregnant. Courts have blocked other states from imposing similar restrictions, but Texas' law differs significantly because it leaves enforcement up to private citizens through civil lawsuits instead of criminal prosecutors.
Here's what to know about the new Texas law that took effect Tuesday, which already has abortion clinics in neighboring states reporting a surge in the number of Texas women seeking the procedure:
Answer: It allows any private citizen to sue Texas abortion providers who violate the law, as well as anyone who "aids or abets" a woman getting the procedure. Abortion patients themselves, however, cannot be sued.
The law does not make exceptions for rape or incest. The person bringing the lawsuit — who does not have to have a connection to the woman getting an abortion — is entitled to at least $10,000 in damages if they prevail in court. Texas Right to Life, the state's largest anti-abortion group, launched a website to receive tips about suspected violations and says it has attorneys ready to bring lawsuits.
Answer: The new Texas law could affect thousands of women seeking abortions, though precise estimates are difficult. In 2020, Texas facilities performed about 54,000 abortions on residents. More than 45,000 of those occurred at eight weeks of pregnancy or less. Some of those abortions still could have been legal under the new law, if they occurred before cardiac activity was detected.
Answer: The key difference is the enforcement mechanism. The Texas law relies on citizens suing abortion providers over alleged violations. Other states sought to enforce their statutes through government actions like criminal charges against physicians who provide abortions.
Texas is one of 14 states with laws either banning abortion entirely or prohibiting it after eight weeks or less of pregnancy. The rest have all been put on hold by courts. Most recently, a court halted a new Arkansas law that would have banned all abortions unless necessary to save the life of the mother in a medical emergency. Other states with blocked laws banning abortions early in pregnancy are Alabama, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah.
Answer: Texas has long been a major battleground over abortion rights and access, including a 2013 law that closed more than half of the 40-plus abortion clinics in the state before it was blocked by the Supreme Court.
Emboldened by victories in the 2020 elections, Republicans responded with a hard-right agenda this year that included loosening gun laws and further tightening what are already some of the nation's strictest voting rules. Anti-abortion groups say the new law was in response to frustration over prosecutors refusing to enforce other abortion restrictions already on the books.
Before Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed the law in May, voters in Lubbock, Texas, approved an ordinance similarly intended to outlaw abortion in the city by allowing family members to sue an abortion provider.
Answer: A case is still proceeding in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, though the timing of future action is unclear.
Answer: The Supreme Court's action does not reinstate any stricken abortion laws in other states. But "essentially, the Supreme Court has now given other states a roadmap for circumscribing Roe vs. Wade," said Steven Schwinn, a constitutional law professor at the University of Illinois Chicago.
Indeed, some Republican lawmakers already are talking about following suit.
In Arkansas, Republican state Sen. Jason Rapert on Thursday tweeted that he planned to file legislation mirroring Texas' law for the Legislature to take up when it reconvenes this fall. But it's unclear whether that will be allowed, because the session's agenda currently is limited to congressional redistricting and COVID-19 legislation.
In Mississippi, Republican state Sen. Chris McDaniel said Thursday that he would "absolutely" consider filing legislation to match the Texas law.
"I think most conservative states in the South will look at this inaction by the court and will see that as perhaps a chance to move on that issue," McDaniel said.
The Mississippi Legislature is scheduled to start meeting in January. The Supreme Court will hear arguments this fall on a 2018 Mississippi law that would ban most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy -- a case that is a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade.
Answer: Some states already have turned to citizens to enforce new laws.
A Missouri law that took effect last week allows citizens to sue local law enforcement agencies whose officers knowingly enforce any federal gun laws. Police and sheriff's departments can face fines of up to $50,000 per occurrence. The law was backed by Republicans who fear Democratic President Joe Biden's administration could enact restrictive gun policies.
In Kansas, a new law prompted by frustration over coronavirus restrictions allows residents to file lawsuits challenging mask mandates and limits on public gatherings imposed by counties. Last month, the Kansas Supreme Court allowed enforcement of the law to proceed while it considers an appeal of a lower court ruling that declared the law unconstitutional.
Utah also took a similar strategy on pornography last year, passing a law that allows citizens to sue websites that fail to display a warning about the effects of "obscene materials" on minors. Though adult-entertainment groups warned it was a violation of free speech, many sites have complied with the law to avoid the expense of a possible onslaught of legal challenges.
Citizens filing their own lawsuits has long been a fixture of environmental and disability-rights law, said Travis Brandon, an associate professor at Belmont University College of Law. Environmental groups, for example, help file suits against businesses accused of violating federal pollution permits.
In California, Proposition 65 allows people who might have been exposed to potentially carcinogenic materials to both file their own lawsuits and collect a kind of "bounty" if they win. Those laws are different, though, in that people generally must show they have been directly affected by a violation of the law, a feature missing from the new Texas measure, Brandon said.
DALLAS (AP) — A San Antonio doctor who said he performed an abortion in defiance of a new Texas law all but dared supporters of the state’s near-total ban on the procedure to try making an early example of him by filing a lawsuit — and by Monday, two people obliged.
Former attorneys in Arkansas and Illinois filed separate state lawsuits Monday against Dr. Alan Braid, who in a weekend Washington Post opinion column became the first Texas abortion provider to publicly reveal he violated the law that took effect on Sept. 1.
They both came in ahead of the state’s largest anti-abortion group, which said it was looking into the matter. Neither ex-lawyer who filed suit said they were anti-abortion. But both said courts should weigh in.
The Texas law prohibits abortions once medical professionals can detect cardiac activity, which is usually around six weeks and before some women even know they are pregnant. Prosecutors cannot take criminal action against Braid, because the law explicitly forbids that. The only way the ban can be enforced is through lawsuits brought by private citizens, who are entitled to claim at least $10,000 in damages if successful.
Oscar Stilley, who described himself in court paperwork as a former lawyer who lost his law license after being convicted of tax fraud in 2010, said he is not opposed to abortion but sued to force a court review of Texas’ anti-abortion law, which he called an “end-run.”
“I don’t want doctors out there nervous and sitting there and quaking in their boots and saying, ‘I can’t do this because if this thing works out, then I’m going to be bankrupt,'” Stilley, of Cedarville, Arkansas, near the Oklahoma border, told The Associated Press.
Felipe N. Gomez, of Chicago, asked a court in San Antonio in his lawsuit to declare the new law unconstitutional. In his view, the law is a form of government overreach. He said his lawsuit is a way to hold the Republicans who run Texas accountable, adding that their lax response to public health during the COVID-19 pandemic conflicts with their crack down on abortion rights.
“If Republicans are going to say nobody can tell you to get a shot they shouldn’t tell women what to do with their bodies either,” Gomez said. “I think they should be consistent.”
Gomez said he wasn’t aware he could claim up to $10,000 in damages if he won his lawsuit. If he received money, Gomez said, he would likely donate it to an abortion rights group or to the patients of the doctor he sued.
Legal experts say Braid’s admission is likely to set up another test of whether the law can stand after the Supreme Court allowed it to take effect.
“Being sued puts him in a position … that he will be able to defend the action against him by saying the law is unconstitutional,” said Carol Sanger, a law professor at Columbia University in New York City.
Braid wrote that on Sept. 6, he provided an abortion to a woman who was still in her first trimester but beyond the state’s new limit.
“I fully understood that there could be legal consequences — but I wanted to make sure that Texas didn’t get away with its bid to prevent this blatantly unconstitutional law from being tested,” Braid wrote.
Two federal lawsuits were already making their way through the courts over the law, known as Senate Bill 8. In one, filed by abortion providers and others, the Supreme Court declined to block the law from taking effect while the case makes its way through the legal system. It’s still proceeding in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In the second case, the Justice Department is asking a federal judge to declare the law invalid, arguing it was enacted “in open defiance of the Constitution.”
The Center for Reproductive Rights, one of the plaintiffs in the first federal lawsuit, is representing Braid.
Nancy Northup, the center’s president and CEO, said they “stand ready to defend him against the vigilante lawsuits that S.B. 8 threatens to unleash against those providing or supporting access to constitutionally protected abortion care.”
Braid could not immediately be reached for comment Monday. His clinic referred interview inquiries to the center.
Texas Right to Life, the state’s largest anti-abortion group, has said it had attorneys ready to bring lawsuits, and launched a website to receive tips about suspected violations, though it is currently redirecting to the group’s homepage. A spokeswoman for the group has noted that the website is mostly symbolic because anyone can report a violation and because abortion providers appeared to be complying with the law.
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s office did not immediately return a message seeking comment Monday.
Joanna Grossman, a law professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said that if a lawsuit is filed against Braid and it reaches the Texas Supreme Court, that court could decide whether the Legislature exceeded its power by allowing anyone to sue.
“The Texas Supreme Court will have the opportunity/obligation to say whether this approach — which would not be limited to abortion — is an acceptable way for the Legislature to pursue its goals,” Grossman said.
Seth Chandler, a law professor at the University of Houston, said anyone suing would “have to persuade a Texas court that they have standing” despite not having personally suffered monetary or property damages.
“The only thing that might have happened is that they’re offended by the fact that the abortion has been performed,” he said. “But there are a lot of Supreme Court decisions saying that merely being offended is not a basis for a lawsuit, and there are Texas Supreme Court decisions saying we follow federal law on what’s called standing.”
Braid said in the Post column that he started his obstetrics and gynecology residency at a San Antonio hospital on July 1, 1972, when abortion was “effectively illegal in Texas.” That year, he saw three teens die from illegal abortions, he wrote.
In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Roe v. Wade ruling, which established a nationwide right to abortion at any point before a fetus can survive outside the womb, generally around 24 weeks.
“I have daughters, granddaughters and nieces,” Braid wrote. “I believe abortion is an essential part of health care. I have spent the past 50 years treating and helping patients. I can’t just sit back and watch us return to 1972.”
Associated Press writers Jake Bleiberg and Adam Kealoha Causey in Dallas and Andrew DeMillo in Little Rock, Arkansas, contributed to this report.