We are living during the most sustained attack on abortion rights in decades, driven by an ever-more extreme anti-abortion movement that, unleashed during the Trump years, is now emboldened by a staunchly conservative Supreme Court as well as Republican-controlled state legislatures.
It can feel like no one is paying attention, even as states pass restriction after restriction. But we should all be following what’s happening in Texas, where an extreme anti-abortion bill has already cleared the Senate and on Wednesday began making its way through the House. Governor Greg Abbott is all but guaranteed to sign the bill into law. The bill—a so-called “heartbeat bill” that would allow nearly anyone to sue abortion providers—will likely have serious repercussions far beyond the borders of the state, given the Texas anti-abortion movement’s outsized role in pioneering and implementing terribly effective abortion restrictions that are then exported elsewhere.
As Kamyon Conner, the executive director of the TEA Fund, an abortion fund that assists people in Texas, told Jezebel, “If it happens here, it will happen in other places, because Texas is a place to watch when it comes to abortion access and abortion restrictions.”
Texas’s Senate Bill 8 appears at first to be just another extreme, unconstitutional ban on abortion before most people even know they are pregnant. Though courts have repeatedly struck down heartbeat bills as unconstitutional, the Texas bill is even more insidious and likely to withstand legal challenges. Included in the bill is a provision that abortion advocates are sounding a serious alarm over. It would allow anyone, including people not living in the state, to file a civil lawsuit against an abortion provider as well as against anyone who, to quote the criminalizing language of the bill, “aids or abets” an abortion seeker. A whole slew of groups and individuals would fall under that umbrella, from abortion funds like the TEA Fund to even friends and family members of abortion seekers who offer money to help or a car ride to a clinic.
As the Center for Reproductive Rights’s chief counsel for state policy Elisabeth Smith told Jezebel, the bill deputizes private citizens to do what the state cannot and “allows private citizens to enforce this law.” Smith added, “This private right of action, which would allow harassment and intimidation of providers, people who work in clinics, family members, and friends, is finally an attempt to enforce the six-week ban.” The ACLU of Texas’s Drucilla Tigner told Jezebel, that SB 8 is “a clear attempt to find an end-run around the Constitution.”
According to Amanda Beatriz Williams, the executive director of the Lilith Fund, SB 8 was “designed entirely” to prevent groups like hers from operating in the state. As Williams put it, SB 8 “would allow anti-abortion extremists to harass and sue abortion funds—our staff, our volunteers, our donors.” In a further sign of its intent to harass and make the work of abortion advocates not only more difficult, but to put them out of business altogether, the bill also states that in the event someone is sued and wins the lawsuit, they cannot seek damages to defray their expenses and legal costs.
That this provision is even being entertained and included in a bill that is likely to become law is another sign that the extreme ideas pushed by the anti-abortion movement have gained mainstream acceptance. According to abortion advocates in the state, it’s the first time such a provision has been included in state-wide legislation. But advocates like Conner and Williams are already familiar with the idea. For years, proponents of turning towns and cities into so-called “sanctuary cities for the unborn,” a movement that began in earnest in east Texas and has since spread, have included similar provisions in the ordinances they have pushed. Last weekend, after years of campaigning by anti-abortion activists, Lubbock voters approved a “sanctuary city for the unborn” ordinance that, like SB 8, includes a private enforcement mechanism. “It’s an overarching new tactic that the anti-abortion extremists are using in their fight to restrict abortion access,” the TEA Fund’s Conner said.
In a sign of the radical nature of SB 8, legislators, including the bill’s supporters, on Wednesday were compelled to approve an amendment to the bill that stated that rapists whose rape resulted in someone getting pregnant did not have the ability under this bill to sue an abortion provider or someone who offered material support to their victim.
What this provision signals is a more aggressive, and more honest, phase in the anti-abortion movement’s to ban abortion. “This bill, in particular, is an example of how much more transparent and extreme anti-abortion activists have become,” the Center for Reproductive Rights’s Smith said. She added, “We know their goal has always been banning abortion entirely, and they’re now just being more open about it.”
And, Smith added, it signals that the mainstream anti-abortion movement has become increasingly comfortable with what was once considered its fringe. “What this bill does, is it says, people who protest outside of abortion clinics, people who yell vitriol on the internet, this bill actually confirms for those people that it is up to you to stop abortion,” Smith said. “And it’s incredibly dangerous because we know the people who believe it’s up to them to stop reproductive healthcare in this country have violent tendencies.”