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An Uber driver could risk being sued for driving someone to an abortion clinic under a new bill approved by the Texas state House on Wednesday. Someone who helps pay for an abortion could also face a lawsuit. So could the doctor who doesn’t even do the procedure but refers a patient out for one.
The bill, which also bans abortion as early as six weeks, holds liable anybody who knowingly “aids or abets the performance or inducement of an abortion” after those six weeks. It’s an unprecedented gambit in the nationwide war over abortion: Rather than having the state enforce abortion restrictions, the Texas state Legislature essentially wants to let random people do it.
“It allows anyone to sue for any perceived—they don’t have to have proof—perceived or suspected violations of the 28 abortion restrictions” enshrined in Texas law, said Kamyon Conner, executive director of the Texas Equal Access Fund. “They just don’t trust people to make decisions about their own lives.”
The bill will return to the House Thursday for a procedural step, then go back to the Senate, which is all but certain to pass it, given that it’s already approved a version of the bill. It will then head to the desk of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who’s already suggested he’ll sign it.
The floor fight Wednesday was fierce and deeply emotional. A legislator who opposed the bill held back her tears as she spoke about her decision to carry out a pregnancy despite knowing that her child would die shortly after birth—and how critical it was that she had the power to make that choice. Another talked about coming of age around the time Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide, was decided and recalled how she had to have her father sign off on her getting a credit card.
“This legislature should not be dictating what we do as women with our own bodies,” the lawmaker, Democratic Rep. Donna Howard, told the gathered legislators.
“There have always been abortions and there always will be, despite the obstructions you’re putting in place here.”
Before the vote, Texas legislators adopted an amendment that would block a rapist who’d impregnated a woman from suing over her abortion. But Rep. Ana-Maria Ramos, a Democrat, asked: What about women who may get pregnant from rape but never report it? How will they avoid being sucked into litigation?
“What protections does your bill have for women who may be maliciously sued by rapists, by people who are stalking them, by ex-husbands who just want to sue the heck out of that ex-wife or woman and just drag her through court?” Ramos asked.
Republican Rep. Shelby Slawson, who sponsored the legislation, said that women would not be defendants in court. Asked repeatedly why a woman wouldn’t face any consequences for an action that anti-abortion activists believe to be tantamount to child murder, Slawson refused to answer.
If signed into law, the legislation will almost certainly trigger a court battle. Roe prohibits states from banning abortion before a fetus becomes viable, a benchmark usually achieved at around 24 weeks of pregnancy. Six weeks is also before many people even know they’re pregnant.
But abortion rights supporters already have a lot of fires to put out right now: Since the start of this year, states have passed at least 61 abortion restrictions, making 2021 the worst year for abortion access in decades, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which supports abortion rights. Twenty-eight restrictions passed last week alone. The majority-conservative Supreme Court is also currently considering whether to take a case out of Mississippi which involves a law that bans abortion before viability.
Over the last few days, another part of Texas has been at the heart of the national fight over abortion access. On Saturday, voters in Lubbock voted to make the west Texas town a “sanctuary city for the unborn” and, in the process, ban abortion entirely, in clear defiance of Roe.
There are no exceptions for rape or incest. Abortions are only permitted in the case of a medical emergency.
Although several towns have passed similar ordinances declaring themselves “sanctuary cities for the unborn” over the last few years, Lubbock is the largest. It’s also the only such town to have an operating abortion clinic. The clinic, a Planned Parenthood, said in a statement Monday that it would soon decide whether to continue to offer abortions.
“Access to healthcare services, including abortion, should not be determined by someone’s zip code, especially when these restrictions will disproportionately impact low income women and women of color,” the clinic said. “We remain committed to advocating for access to abortion for any Texan, including here in Lubbock.”
The Lubbock ordinance is expected to take effect around the end of May. And, like the bill passed in the Texas state House Wednesday, it would also let regular people sue anyone who aids and abets an abortion.
“They can be complete strangers to everybody involved and they’re now able to sue,” said Drucilla Tigner, policy and advocacy strategist for the ACLU of Texas. “This is clearly an attempt to find an end-run around the Constitution.”