Federal judges asked tough questions Friday morning during a lengthier-than-expected appeals court hearing concerning the enforcement of Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion law, HB 2. The law in part mandates that abortion facilities operate as hospital-like ambulatory surgical centers and requires abortion-providing doctors to obtain hospital admitting privileges.
An Austin judge had blocked the law just before Labor Day, prompting the State of Texas to appeal to the Firth Circuit court in New Orleans to allow it to begin enforcing HB 2.
“We basically tried to focus on the point that access for women in Texas is the most important thing right now and maintaining the status quo and allowing clinics that can’t meet ASC requirements to stay open is essential,” an attorney for the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR), which is representing Texas abortion providers in the case, told Rewire after the hearing.
“If the state is granted its motion and starts enforcing the law, there will be only at most seven or eight clinics left in Texas,” lead attorney Esha Bhandari said.
Like This Story?
Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.
Before HB 2 passed, Texas had 41 licensed abortion providers; just eight of those licensed providers would currently be able to operate as ambulatory surgical centers, and all are located in major metropolitan areas in the northeast part of the state, leaving South Texas and West Texas devoid of legal abortion facilities.
This morning’s three-judge panel—one Obama appointee and two judges appointed by Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush—largely appeared to split down predictable party lines in their respective lines of questioning.
Judge Jerry Smith, the Reagan appointee, opened the hearing by questioning the State of Texas’ delay in filing its federal appeal, which came near midnight two days after the original federal court ruling. Smith said he was “perplexed” about the way the state handled its appeal.
“All of the judges and our staffs, as well as the staff here in New Orleans, were on alert throughout the weekend thinking that you felt strongly enough about the harm element that you would file a motion for stay,” said Smith, interrupting Texas deputy attorney general Jonathan Mitchell, who appeared on the state’s behalf.
Mitchell responded that because of the wide scope of Western District Judge Lee Yeakel’s ruling, the attorney general’s office was unable to file more quickly than it did.
But the toughest lines of questioning came from Bush appointee Judge Jennifer Elrod, who appeared unswayed by CRR attorney Stephanie Toti’s argument that HB 2 should remain blocked while its appeal continues in the federal court system.
Elrod peppered Toti with questions about constitutional precedent, and focused particularly on whether Texas abortion providers could show that HB 2 would constitute an undue burden for a “large fraction” of Texans.
Elrod also questioned the reliability and relevance of research produced by the University of Texas’ Texas Policy Evaluation Project, which found that more than a million Texans will live farther than 100 miles from a legal abortion provider if HB 2 goes into effect.
State’s attorney Jonathan Mitchell largely stayed away from questions of fact-finding and the trial record concerning whether low-income Texans could travel hundreds of miles round-trip for legal abortion care, arguing instead that “this is a pure legal question for the court to decide,” and that past legal precedent should cause the Fifth Circuit to immediately allow the state to begin enforcing HB 2.
It is unknown when the Fifth Circuit will rule on the current appeal, though the court has in the past upheld Texas abortion laws and Texas laws allowing the state to ban Planned Parenthood from providing state-funded contraception and cancer screenings.
A unanimous panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down North Carolina’s elections law, holding that the Republican-held legislature had enacted the law with discriminatory intent to burden Black voters and that it therefore violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The ruling marks the latest defeat of voter ID laws passed by GOP-majority legislatures across the country.
“We can only conclude that the North Carolina General Assembly enacted the challenged provisions of the law with discriminatory intent,” Circuit Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote for the court.
Republicans claimed that the law was intended to protect against voter fraud, which has proven exceedingly rare in Republican-led investigations. But voting rights advocates argue that the law was intended to disenfranchise Black and Latino voters.
The ruling marks a dramatic reversal of fortune for the U.S. Justice Department, the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, and the League of Women Voters, which had asked the Fourth Circuit to review a lower court ruling against them.
U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Schroeder in April ruled that plaintiffs had failed to demonstrate that the law hindered Black voters’ ability to exercise political power.
The Fourth Circuit disagreed.
“In holding that the legislature did not enact the challenged provisions with discriminatory intent, the court seems to have missed the forest in carefully surveying the many trees,” Motz wrote. “This failure of perspective led the court to ignore critical facts bearing on legislative intent, including the inextricable link between race and politics in North Carolina.”
The Fourth Circuit noted that the Republican-dominated legislature passed the law in 2013, immediately following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby v. Holder, which struck a key provision in Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act.
Section 4 is the coverage formula used to determine which states must get pre-clearance from the Department of Justice or the District Court for the District of Columbia before making any changes to election laws.
The day after the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Shelby, the Republican chairman of the Senate Rules Committee announced the North Carolina legislature’s intention to enact an “omnibus” election law, the appeals court noted. Before enacting the law, however, the Republican-dominated legislature requested data on the use, by race, of a number of voting practices.
After receipt of the race data, the North Carolina General Assembly enacted legislation that restricted voting and registration, all of which disproportionately burdened Black voters.
“In response to claims that intentional racial discrimination animated its actions, the State offered only meager justifications,” Motz continued. “[T]he new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”
The ruling comes a day after the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP and one of the primary organizers of Moral Mondays, gave a rousing speech at the Democratic National Convention that brought convention goers to their feet.
During a protest on the first day of the trial, Barber told a crowd of about 3,500 people, “this is our Selma.”
A Texas GOP lawmaker has teamed up with an anti-choice organization to raise awareness about the supposed prevalence of forced or coerced abortion, which critics say is “wildly divorced from reality.”
Rep. Molly White (R-Belton) during a press conference at the state capitol on July 13 announced an effort to raise awareness among public officials and law enforcement that forced abortion is illegal in Texas.
White said in a statement that she is proud to work alongside The Justice Foundation (TJF), an anti-choice group, in its efforts to tell law enforcement officers about their role in intervening when a pregnant person is being forced to terminate a pregnancy.
“Because the law against forced abortions in Texas is not well known, The Justice Foundation is offering free training to police departments and child protective service offices throughout the State on the subject of forced abortion,” White said.
Like This Story?
Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.
White was joined at the press conference by Allan Parker, the president of The Justice Foundation, a “Christian faith-based organization” that represents clients in lawsuits related to conservative political causes.
Parker told Rewire that by partnering with White and anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), TJF hopes to reach a wider audience.
“We will partner with anyone interested in stopping forced abortions,” Parker said. “That’s why we’re expanding it to police, social workers, and in the fall we’re going to do school counselors.”
White only has a few months remaining in office, after being defeated in a closely contested Republican primary election in March. She leaves office after serving one term in the state GOP-dominated legislature, but her short time there was marked by controversy.
During the Texas Muslim Capitol Day, she directed her staff to “ask representatives from the Muslim community to renounce Islamic terrorist groups and publicly announce allegiance to America and our laws.”
Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, said in an email to Rewire that White’s education initiative overstates the prevalence of coerced abortion. “Molly White’s so-called ‘forced abortion’ campaign is yet another example that shows she is wildly divorced from reality,” Busby said.
There is limited data on the how often people are forced or coerced to end a pregnancy, but Parker alleges that the majority of those who have abortions may be forced or coerced.
‘Extremely common but hidden’
“I would say that they are extremely common but hidden,” Parker said. “I would would say coerced or forced abortion range from 25 percent to 60 percent. But, it’s a little hard be to accurate at this point with our data.”
Parker said that if “a very conservative 10 percent” of the about 60,000 abortions that occur per year in Texas were due to coercion, that would mean there are about 6,000 women per year in the state that are forced to have an abortion. Parker believes that percentage is much higher.
“I believe the number is closer to 50 percent, in my opinion,” Parker said.
Busby said that White used “flawed research” to lobby for legislation aimed at preventing coerced abortions in Texas.
“Since she filed her bogus coerced abortion bill—which did not pass—last year, she has repeatedly cited flawed research and now is partnering with the Justice Foundation, an organization known to disseminate misinformation and shameful materials to crisis pregnancy centers,” Busby said.
White also sponsored HB 1648, which would have required a law enforcement officer to notify the Department of Family and Protective Services if they received information indicating that a person has coerced, forced, or attempted to coerce a pregnant minor to have or seek abortion care.
The bill was met by skepticism by both Republican lawmakers and anti-choice activists.
State affairs committee chairman Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana) told White during a committee hearing the bill needed to be revised, reported the Texas Tribune.
“This committee has passed out a number of landmark pieces of legislation in this area, and the one thing I think we’ve learned is they have to be extremely well-crafted,” Cook said. “My suggestion is that you get some real legal folks to help engage on this, so if you can keep this moving forward you can potentially have the success others have had.”
‘Very small piece of the puzzle of a much larger problem’
White testified before the state affairs committee that there is a connection between women who are victims of domestic or sexual violence and women who are coerced to have an abortion. “Pregnant women are most frequently victims of domestic violence,” White said. “Their partners often threaten violence and abuse if the woman continues her pregnancy.”
There is research that suggests a connection between coerced abortion and domestic and sexual violence.
Dr. Elizabeth Miller, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh, told the American Independent that coerced abortion cannot be removed from the discussion of reproductive coercion.
“Coerced abortion is a very small piece of the puzzle of a much larger problem, which is violence against women and the impact it has on her health,” Miller said. “To focus on the minutia of coerced abortion really takes away from the really broad problem of domestic violence.”
A 2010 study co-authored by Miller surveyed about 1,300 men and found that 33 percent reported having been involved in a pregnancy that ended in abortion; 8 percent reported having at one point sought to prevent a female partner from seeking abortion care; and 4 percent reported having “sought to compel” a female partner to seek an abortion.
Another study co-authored by Miller in 2010 found that among the 1,300 young women surveyed at reproductive health clinics in Northern California, about one in five said they had experienced pregnancy coercion; 15 percent of the survey respondents said they had experienced birth control sabotage.
‘Tactic to intimidate and coerce women into not choosing to have an abortion’
TJF’s so-called Center Against Forced Abortions claims to provide legal resources to pregnant people who are being forced or coerced into terminating a pregnancy. The website includes several documents available as “resources.”
One of the documents, a letter addressed to “father of your child in the womb,” states that that “you may not force, coerce, or unduly pressure the mother of your child in the womb to have an abortion,” and that you could face “criminal charge of fetal homicide.”
The letter states that any attempt to “force, unduly pressure, or coerce” a women to have an abortion could be subject to civil and criminal charges, including prosecution under the Federal Unborn Victims of Violence Act.
The document cites the 2007 case Lawrence v. State as an example of how one could be prosecuted under Texas law.
“What anti-choice activists are doing here is really egregious,” said Jessica Mason Pieklo, Rewire’s vice president of Law and the Courts. “They are using a case where a man intentionally shot his pregnant girlfriend and was charged with murder for both her death and the death of the fetus as an example of reproductive coercion. That’s not reproductive coercion. That is extreme domestic violence.”
“To use a horrific case of domestic violence that resulted in a woman’s murder as cover for yet another anti-abortion restriction is the very definition of callousness,” Mason Pieklo added.
Parker said a patient might go to a “pregnancy resource center,” fill out the document, and staff will “send that to all the abortionists in the area that they can find out about. Often that will stop an abortion. That’s about 98 percent successful, I would say.”
Reproductive rights advocates contend that the document is intended to mislead pregnant people into believing they have signed away their legal rights to abortion care.
Abortion providers around the country who are familiar with the document said it has been used for years to deceive and intimidate patients and providers by threatening them with legal action should they go through with obtaining or providing an abortion.
Vicki Saporta, president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation, previously told Rewire that abortion providers from across the country have reported receiving the forms.
“It’s just another tactic to intimidate and coerce women into not choosing to have an abortion—tricking women into thinking they have signed this and discouraging them from going through with their initial decision and inclination,” Saporta said.
Busby said that the types of tactics used by TFJ and other anti-choice organizations are a form of coercion.
“Everyone deserves to make decisions about abortion free of coercion, including not being coerced by crisis pregnancy centers,” Busby said. “Anyone’s decision to have an abortion should be free of shame and stigma, which crisis pregnancy centers and groups like the Justice Foundation perpetuate.”
“Law enforcement would be well advised to seek their own legal advice, rather than rely on this so-called ‘training,” Busby said.