Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas and its affiliates filed a temporary restraining order with a Texas district court Thursday night against Texas Right to Life to stop the anti-abortion organization from suing abortion providers under a new law that all but bans abortions in the state.
The U.S. Supreme Court rejected an emergency request to block Senate Bill 8, which took effect on Wednesday. The law, the nation’s most restrictive measure to remain in effect, prohibits abortions once cardiac activity is detected in an embryo, which can occur during the first six weeks of pregnancy — before many women know they are pregnant.
Instead of criminal penalties, the new law allows almost anyone to sue abortion providers if they violate it as well as anyone else who “aids and abets” an illegal abortion. Plaintiffs could be awarded at least $10,000.
Planned Parenthood, which has stopped providing abortion services in San Antonio but continues elsewhere in the state, refers to SB 8 as the “sue thy neighbor law.”
“Anti-abortion activists are already staking out our health centers, surveilling our providers, and threatening our patients,” said Helene Krasnoff, vice president for public policy litigation and law for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, in a news release. “The physicians, nurses, and clinic staff at Planned Parenthood health centers in Texas — and at abortion providers statewide — deserve to come to work without fear of harassment or frivolous lawsuits.”
This unprecedented enforcement framework essentially circumvents traditional judicial review. Typically, individuals or groups would legally challenge the state as the enforcer — but this law removes the state from the equation. In order for the Supreme Court to review the law, someone will have to sue someone who performed or assisted an illegal abortion; only then it can be challenged.
If the district court grants the restraining order, it would only apply to Planned Parenthood, its affiliates, and an individual Planned Parenthood Houston physician, Dr. Bhavik Kumar, who joined the order. This means other providers would likely still be subject to the law.
The Supreme Court’s unsigned majority opinion stressed that its refusal to block the law is not a ruling on whether the law is constitutional. But the law is a direct violation of Supreme Court precedent, Roe v. Wade, which prohibits states from banning abortions prior to fetal viability — usually between 22 and 24 weeks.
Texas Right to Life, which helped write the bill, set up a “whistleblower” tip line so people can report violations to the anti-abortion organization. An email seeking the organization’s comment on the restraining order was not returned Friday morning.
The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) said on Twitter that it will defy the law.
“The ban on abortion in Texas is an abomination,” the nonprofit tweeted. “We want to send a very clear message: RAICES will not obey this archaic and sexist law. We’ve funded & supported access to abortions for immigrants in Texas for years and will continue to do so. Some laws are meant to be broken.”
The Texas law, referred to as “The Heartbeat Law” by anti-abortion groups, applies to cases of rape and incest, but makes exceptions for medical emergencies.
Fetal cardiac activity, however, “can be detected by ultrasound as early as 5-6 weeks’ gestation, before the fetus’ heart has actually developed,” according to a research brief published by the University of Texas at Austin’s Texas Policy Evaluation Project.
“When I use the stethoscope to listen to a patient’s heart, that sound that I hear is that typical bum-bum-bum-bum that you hear as the heartbeat is created by the opening and closing of the cardiac valves. And at six weeks of gestation, those valves don’t exist,” Dr. Nisha Verma, a physician who provides abortion services and a fellow at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, told the Texas Tribune.
According to the university brief, the law will prevent 80% of women from accessing abortion care, particularly “Black patients and those living on low incomes or who live far from a facility that provides abortion because they often experience delays obtaining care.”