Texas Anti-Abortion Groups See ‘Ultimate Goal’ Approaching
The state’s ban is already functioning as designed, leaving more and more Texans unable to access abortion care.
Hours before S.B.-8 took effect in Texas, John Seago, legislative director of Texas Right to Life and architect of the state’s near-total abortion ban, was confident that his organization had the infrastructure in place to successfully enforce the new law. Over the last five decades, Texas Right to Life, “the oldest, largest, and only statewide Pro-Life organization in Texas,” has amassed a volunteer army of tens of thousands of anti-abortion lawyers and advocates eager to whistleblow, investigate, and bring civil lawsuits against anyone they think may have violated the ban on abortions after six weeks. “We knew that a law [that relies on civilian enforcement]… is only going to work, it’s only going to result in lives saved, if the abortion industry truly believes that they are in risk of a lawsuit if they violate the law. That is the ultimate goal. So we needed to [show] that we are prepared to bring these lawsuits… that’s why we’ve been preparing to bring them,” he said.
This abortion ban is what Seago, Texas Right to Life, and other groups in the state that oppose abortion have been laying legal and political groundwork for in decades of activism. After years of chipping away at abortion access through various partial-bans and regulations, Seago finally saw an opening to get a so-called heartbeat bill to the governor’s desk for signature, helping to elect many of the lawmakers who passed the six-week ban. The Texas Right to Life PAC has given close to $2 million in campaign contributions to Republican candidates who support the group’s legislative agenda in Texas. The PAC gave $10,000 to Bryan Hughes, one of the primary sponsors of S.B.-8, to help elect him to the State Senate in 2016.
Once they agreed on the type of policy to champion, “we talked about what enforcement mechanism is the best to adopt,” Seago explained. The need to devise a novel enforcement mechanism in the first place, according to Seago, was about more than ensuring the law would hold up in court. In October 2020, four Texas attorneys general joined other elected prosecutors across the country in pledging to never enforce any unconstitutional abortion bans. For Seago, the civil liability enforcement mechanism took power out of their hands and into those of the hundreds of thousands of citizens opposed to abortion. The tactic proved successful last week, when the Supreme Court issued an unsigned, 5-4 order that allowed the law to take effect that same day.
Despite Texas Right to Life’s robust network of supporters working around the clock to help with enforcement, the organization has faced recent setbacks. In ensuring the proper infrastructure was in place in advance of Wednesday, Texas Right to Life created a website, prolifewhistleblower.com, that gave Texans a forum to anonymously submit possible S.B.-8 violators. After a viral Tik-Tok video drove scores of online hacktivists to the site, the fate of the website hung in the balance. By Friday morning, according to a statement Seago provided to the Daily Beast, staff members at Texas Right to Life were working with the FBI and local law enforcement to “follow up on illegal activities that individuals have launched against us.” Seago provided no further detail on those illegal activities or the status of the investigation.
Later on Friday, GoDaddy made a decision to no longer host the site. What’s more, Planned Parenthood won a temporary restraining order against Texas Right to Life and its affiliates that keeps anyone associated with the anti-abortion group from suing Planned Parenthood, at least until Sept. 17. Still, Seago maintained that everything was going according to plan: “[We’re] very familiar with hacks, cyberattacks, and other attempts to keep us from our life-saving mission. Everything is functioning as designed at this point.”
On the ground in Texas, the ban is, as Seago noted, already functioning as designed. In clinics across the state, doctors have seen a sharp decline in the number of patients seeking abortion care. Many of those who have made appointments in the last two days have been turned away, and more and more are being sent out of state. After learning that all eleven of the state’s remaining Planned Parenthood facilities had stopped scheduling appointments for anyone too far along in pregnancy, Seago commented, “Thankfully, it looks like they understand that risk and that they are going to comply with the law.” Dr. Bhavik Kumar confirmed that he and his colleagues at Planned Parenthood are complying with S.B.-8: “We’re not breaking the law. So there’s really no foundation for any lawsuits even if they were to come forward”. In complying with the new law, Kumar now has to certify that he hasn’t detected any cardiac motion before performing an abortion. “We’re documenting that in the chart and making sure patients are aware of it as well, which of course, is medically unnecessary, and shouldn’t be part of the care that I’m providing,” he emphasized. Seago maintains that the new reporting requirements were written into S.B.-8 so that providers could have additional evidence to bring before a judge if they’re wrongfully sued.
The abortion funds that provide material support to help people access abortion care at any of the state’s few remaining clinics are experiencing the chilling effects of S.B.-8, too. Many are coming up with ways to further safeguard their day-to-day work. Zaena Zamora, executive director of Frontera Fund, wondered if simply keeping up the mission statement on the fund’s website could be cause for legal action, for example. Digital Defense Fund, an organization whose sole purpose is to provide digital security to the abortion access movement, has ramped up its support for Frontera. Still, Zamora said, “What constitutes aiding and abetting, you know, and does it count if we help people leave Texas?” For Marsha Jones, co-founder and executive director of the the Afiya Center in Dallas, a reproductive justice organization that serves Black women, girls, and marginalized genders, the fear isn’t about being embroiled in legal battles. “My concern is not having the capacity in the organization… to serve the people that we serve, to now have to be wasting time to do this [defending themselves in court].
Jones and Zamora know all too well what the real, disparate impact of this law will be on the communities they serve. Jones recounted one experience she had with a woman who received support from Afiya to access the abortion that allowed her to leave her abusive relationship. The woman was having suicidal ideations after learning she was pregnant again with the man who was abusing her. As Jones recalled, “Her thing was, ‘Either he’s gonna kill me or I’m gonna kill me’... That abortion literally saved her life.” S.B.-8 has no exception for pregnancies that are a result of violence.
At Frontera Fund, Zamora’s concern is for the undocumented birthing people who now have nowhere to turn. “I think that's one thing a lot of people don't understand... people can’t just leave because of certain documentation barriers they face. Any avenue out of the Rio Grande Valley, any road that takes you out of South Texas you have to pass border patrol checkpoints. It’s not just one, there are multiple ones on every major highway… They’re literally trapped. Yes, they’re trapped. There’s no leaving without putting yourself in really great risk.”
Many organizations outside of Texas and internationally now provide people with unwanted pregnancies the resources they need to have safe, self-managed abortions using medication. Under S.B.-8, those organizations could now face legal action, too. “That performance of the abortion, that’s how our law defines it… even distributing the drugs is a performance of an abortion. So even though it takes place in two different locations, that’s still a violation of this law,” Seago explained.
With few places left to turn, many Texans with unwanted pregnancies may now find themselves, knowingly or not, at one of the state’s many crisis pregnancy centers. Jana Pinson, executive director of the Pregnancy Center of Coastal Bend, said she’s seen an uptick in visits. Pregnancy Centers like Pinson’s have received millions in taxpayer dollars through the state’s Alternatives to Abortions program, which the Texas legislature allocated an additional $100 million to in this year’s budget. The centers aren’t health-care facilities, aren’t subject to regulation, and receive little government oversight. Pinson’s center recently started offering prenatal care, but, like all pregnancy centers in the state, no contraception. While Pinson’s center has a medical director responsible for signing off on ultrasounds, Dr. Kumar and Marsha Jones have both met many pregnant people who’ve received verifiably inaccurate ultrasound images that showed they were too far into their pregnancies to get legal abortions.
Without oversight, it’s possible that pregnancy centers will continue to use this tactic to prevent women from getting the abortion care that’s still legally available to them—for now.