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Texas abortion providers secure temporary protection from lawsuits

A state court order does not address the constitutionality of the near-total abortion ban in Texas, but it prevents an anti-abortion group from trying to enforce the new law while the legal battle unfolds.

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — On Monday, attorneys representing anti-abortion group Texas Right to Life and Planned Parenthood clinics across Texas agreed to a temporary restraining order blocking the group and its members from filing lawsuits against the clinics under the state's recently enacted six-week ban on abortion.

The TRO signed Monday by Travis County District Judge Karin Crump bars Texas Right to Life, the group’s legislative director and multiple unnamed defendants from filing civil lawsuits against Planned Parenthood clinics. The abortion provider filed its petition earlier this month seeking protection from anticipated legal challenges.

At the heart of the suit is the Texas Heartbeat Act, or Senate Bill 8, one of the most restrictive abortion statutes in the country. Passed during the Texas Legislature’s spring regular session, SB 8 restricts a person’s ability to receive an abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected, long before they are aware of their pregnancy, with no exceptions in cases of rape or incest.

The bill uniquely hands enforcement over to Texas citizens, creating a path for individual citizens to file civil lawsuits against physicians and anyone who “aids and abets” in someone obtaining an illegal abortion. Those seeking to sue providers can receive up to $10,000 and be awarded attorneys fees.

The law does not give abortion providers the ability to recover attorney fees if they are successful in a case brought against them. Abortion rights advocates have argued that the purpose of the bill is to scare abortion providers with the threat of extensive litigation, likening its method of enforcement to placing bounties on the heads of abortion providers and private individuals. 

After the U.S. Supreme Court declined to issue an emergency stay, the controversial abortion law took effect Sept. 1. Planned Parenthood filed its petition the following day.

The clinics argue the law has drastically harmed them already and will do more harm if it is not enjoined. They claim Texas Right to Life and those involved in the organization have already announced their plans to bring litigation against them, prompting the clinics to prempetively petition for injunctive relief against such suits. 

In her brief order Monday, Crump wrote that the "plaintiffs will be imminently and irreparably harmed in the interim absent a temporary injunction.” 

Helene Krasnoff, Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s vice president for public policy litigation and law, said in a statement the group is pleased with the court’s decision to temporarily protect providers and clinic staff from litigation.

 “We are relieved that the Travis County District Court has entered a temporary injunction against Texas Right to Life and anyone working with them… our providers and health care workers will now have some protection from frivolous suits as litigation against this blatantly unconstitutional law continues,” Krasnoff said.

Abortion rights advocates have decried the difficult situation the new law has put people seeking abortions in.

“Desperate Texans are being forced to carry pregnancies against their will or flee the state to seek constitutionally protected care, and brave health care providers and staff across the state are working hard to provide care within the law while facing surveillance, harassment, and threats,” Krasnoff said.

Since taking effect Sept. 1, SB 8 has sparked legal battles in both state and federal courts. Last week, the Biden administration's Department of Justice sued Texas over the new law. U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said during a press conference that “the act is clearly unconstitutional under longstanding Supreme Court precedent.” 

“This kind of scheme to nullify the Constitution of the United States is one that all Americans, whatever their politics or party, should fear,” said Garland.

The Supreme Court's 5-4 decision allowing the law to take effect came in the form of a rejection of an emergency application for a stay filed by the abortion providers. Five conservative justices, including three appointed by former President Donald Trump, made up the majority.

Following the high court's decision, President Joe Biden said that allowing the law to go into effect “unleashes unconstitutional chaos” that will impact millions of Texans. 

Planned Parenthood's case against Texas Right to Life is set to go to trial in April 2022. Until then, many clinics in Texas have ceased providing abortion procedures out of fear of litigation.

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