Courts

With a Legal Win Against "Bounty Hunters," Local Abortion Activists Prepare for More Battles

Activists protest the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v Wade in downtown Dallas on June 24, 2022.
Activists protest the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v Wade in downtown Dallas on June 24, 2022. Mike Brooks
Last week a Texas court handed abortion-rights advocates a victory when it dismissed a lawsuit against a San Antonio doctor who provided an abortion in September to a woman who was more than six weeks pregnant. It’s a significant win for those who oppose Texas Senate Bill 8, also known as “the Heartbeat Act,” which prohibits abortions from being performed when a detectable fetal heartbeat is present.

Dr. Alan Baird wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post both admitting to the procedure and explaining why he did so. He specifically took aim at the so-called “bounty hunter” feature of the bill, allowing citizens to file a lawsuit for $10,000 against anyone who performs abortions or otherwise aids in providing them to women more than six weeks pregnant.

One of Baird’s goals in providing the abortion and then publicizing it, according to his op-ed, was “to make sure that Texas didn’t get away with its bid to prevent this blatantly unconstitutional law from being tested.”

The suit, filed by Chicago attorney Felipe Gomez, who is currently serving a three-year suspension from practicing law for sending threatening messages to opposing legal counsel, wasn’t the result of fervent anti-abortion views. Gomez told Bloomberg Law he’s pro-choice and, like Baird, he wanted SB 8 to be legally scrutinized.

A press release from the doctor’s legal representation at the Center for Reproductive Rights stated, “The court rejected the idea that bystanders can sue abortion providers or helpers, ruling from the bench that a person does not have legal standing to sue if they have not been directly impacted by the abortion services provided.”

Denise Rodriguez, communications director for the Texas Equal Access Fund, acknowledges the positive outcome this case has for her group but isn’t ready to declare any sort of overwhelming victory yet. The Dallas-based TEA Fund works to remove restrictions to abortion care, especially for people of color, young women, those in rural areas and people with low income.

“It is good that another state judge has ruled that SB 8 is a bogus law and reaffirms an earlier ruling by another Texas judge,” Rodriguez stated in an email to the Observer. “This does not change our current legal uncertainty caused by the reversal of Roe v. Wade.”

As of now, Rodriguez also wrote, the TEA Fund’s abortion-funding programs are on hold as the group continues to progress through the courts “to affirm our rights to fund people’s abortions.” As that moves ahead, there is other work to be done at the TEA Fund.

“We were at the forefront of two wins in Dallas and Denton city councils to deprioritize investigation of pregnancy outcomes,” she explained. “We’re still supporting folks who have had abortions through our Post Abortion Truth and Healing peer support group. We’re also training abortion storytellers on how they can leverage their stories for change, especially during legislative sessions.”

"It is good that another state judge has ruled that SB 8 is a bogus law and reaffirms an earlier ruling by another Texas judge." – Denise Rodriguez, The Texas Equal Access Fund

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The Afiya Center in Dallas, a reproductive justice organization focusing on the needs of Black women, has also been engaged in the legal process opposing SB 8. Cerita Burrell, the Afiya Center’s director of programs, views the Bexar County judge’s ruling as a first step.

“On its face, SB 8 is ridiculous, unconstitutional and completely infringes on a person's autonomy to choose if, when and how to parent,” she explained. “The authors of the bill wrote it in such a way that it would relieve the state from enforcing the law; however, they clearly did not take into account the state’s constitution. Last week’s ruling points out that the state constitution requires proof of injury as grounds to file a lawsuit. While Judge [Aaron] Haas’s ruling will likely not stop more SB 8 lawsuits from being filed, we are hopeful that the outcomes will be the same.”

This development is merely the tip of the iceberg that is the upcoming state legislative session. Several bills relating to abortion will be up for debate, with conservative lawmakers seeking to build upon the moves already made in the wake of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade. Burrell says her group and others are preparing to continue their efforts where they feel it is most important. 

“Within the next three months, we, alongside other organizations, are doing everything we possibly can within our reach,” she noted. “To not only meet with public seat holders on a state level, but local level as well because that is where all of this begins.”
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Kelly Dearmore

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