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Abortion rights advocates, including El Paso Planned Parenthood, sue to block new Texas law

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El Paso Planned Parenthood, through its umbrella organization Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, has joined dozens of abortion rights advocates and providers in a federal lawsuit seeking to block the state’s strict new abortion law from taking effect.

The measure, Senate Bill 8, was signed into law in May and will go into effect in September if not blocked in court. Also called the Texas Heartbeat Act, the law bans abortions as soon as cardiac activity can be detected in an embryo — as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, and before many know they are pregnant. Though the law allows abortions past this period in medical emergencies, it does not include exceptions for pregnancies that result from rape or incest.

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas and alleges, according to court filings, that SB 8 violates the First and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution because it would restrict freedom of speech, due process and equal protection provisions, among others. 

Until March 2020, out-of-state doctors flew in twice a month to perform abortions at the El Paso Planned Parenthood clinic. The risk of COVID-19 infection forced its providers to stop taking those flights, leading El Paso Planned Parenthood to stop offering abortions. (El Paso currently has no abortion services.)

The clinic continues to provide other health services and is actively recruiting new physicians to resume abortion services — what has long been an especially challenging prospect for clinics in Texas because of the state’s current abortion restrictions. 

“It’s very difficult to compel a provider to pick up and move their life, and come to a state like Texas and work under such rigorous and extreme restrictions,” said Xochitl Rodriguez, philanthropy officer for Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas in El Paso.

State Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, filed the legislation and told the Washington Post the measure is about “protecting unborn babies and stopping illegal abortions.” He added that he “welcomes the opportunity” to have the issue debated in court. 

Roughly a dozen states have implemented similar six-week bans. But the Texas law is unique because it empowers individuals, rather than legal authorities, to enforce the ban through civil lawsuits — where those filing suit stand to gain a minimum of $10,000 if they win their case. 

Texas Right to Life, an organization opposed to abortions, is already gearing up for court. “(A)fter the Texas Heartbeat Act takes effect, we’re going to sue the abortionists ourselves!” the group wrote in bold on its website Wednesday.  

Patients themselves cannot be sued for ending their pregnancies past the six-week window. Under the new law, however, anyone who “aids or abets” them could be.

“As a result, someone who accompanies her sister to an abortion clinic and pays for the abortion, or a sexual assault counselor who calls an abortion clinic on behalf of a patient, could find themselves dragged into a court across the state,” the lawsuit claims.   

The bill also targets funds that would help individuals pay for some or all of their abortions, including travel, lodging, and the procedure itself, which in Texas is not typically covered by insurance and can run as high as $1,000 depending on the stage of pregnancy. SB 8 specifically names “paying for or reimbursing the costs of an abortion through insurance or otherwise” — or even intending to do so — as an action that could be subject to a lawsuit. 

Alexis, who manages the abortion helpline for the El Paso-based West Fund, an advocacy group that provides logistical and funding support for abortions, said their group’s small staff is still developing contingency plans in case the new law takes effect. Many are confused and uncertain. They know their work will expose them to civil lawsuits, but have questions about who at West Fund would be legally liable.

“We’re still trying to figure out whether it’s going to be me who’s on the line, or the volunteers, or West Fund as a whole. Who’s going to be ‘getting in trouble’?” Alexis, who uses she/they pronouns and asked that their last name not be published due to safety concerns, was most worried about the four volunteers they supervise, who are “super young. … They’re just barely graduated from high school, just figuring their life out.”  

Clinic staff at El Paso Planned Parenthood, meanwhile, are developing ways to expedite their operations in the event that SB 8 takes effect in September — so that whenever a new abortion provider joins the clinic, they’ll be able to work within the six-week window stipulated by SB 8.  

Above all, they are heartened at the number of organizations, doctors, and clergy involved in the lawsuit, Rodriguez said. “You look back at the history of what Texas has done to hurt reproductive rights and access to health care, and they created the situation that allowed all of these organizations to learn how to work together, to come together like this.”

Cover photo: Local abortion fund West Fund put up billboards in El Paso in 2019. (Photo courtesy of West Fund)

Victoria Rossi

Victoria Rossi is a gender reporter with El Paso Matters and a Report for America corps member. She has worked as a health and education journalist, an immigration paralegal, and a criminal justice researcher. She can be reached at vrossi@elpasomatters.org.

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