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Judge shields Texas clinics from antiabortion group’s lawsuits

A security guard outside a building with a banner reading, "Abortion is legal, our clinic is open!"
A security guard outside the Whole Women’s Health Clinic in Fort Worth on Wednesday.
(Associated Press)

A judge has temporarily shielded some Texas clinics from being sued by the state’s largest antiabortion group under a new law banning most abortions.

The temporary restraining order was issued Friday by District Judge Maya Guerra Gamble in Austin in response to a Planned Parenthood request.

Although the law remains in effect, the judge’s order shields the nonprofit organization’s clinics, specifically, from whistleblower lawsuits by the nonprofit group Texas Right to Life, its legislative director and people working in concert with the group.

A hearing on a preliminary injunction request is scheduled Sept. 13. The temporary restraining order only shields Planned Parenthood from Texas Right to Life lawsuits; it doesn’t prevent Texas Right to Life from suing other clinics, or prevent people not affiliated with Texas Right to Life from suing Planned Parenthood.

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The law, which took effect Wednesday, prohibits abortions once medical professionals can detect “cardiac activity,” not an actual heartbeat, usually around the sixth week of pregnancy and before some women realize they’re pregnant. The law leaves enforcement to citizens through lawsuits rather than to prosecutors filing criminal charges.

If Planned Parenthood is ultimately successful in the case, it could become a model for other abortion providers to bring similar “injunction-type cases” against those likely to sue them over alleged violations of the law, said David Coale, a Dallas appellate attorney who isn’t involved in the litigation but has been watching it unfold.

Planned Parenthood, which provides abortions and other reproductive health services, said in a statement Friday that the law was “already decimating abortion access in the state, as providers are forced to turn people away” once cardiac activity is detected. The group said that historically, 85% to 90% of abortions in Texas were done at least six weeks into pregnancy.

In its petition filed late Thursday, Planned Parenthood said that even if it prevailed in every case under the new law, the lawsuits would accomplish the law’s goal to “harass abortion providers and others critical to a patient’s support network.” The group said the lawsuits could bankrupt those who are sued, since the new law doesn’t allow them to recover attorney fees and costs if they win.

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Texas Right to Life Vice President Elizabeth Graham said in a statement that her group expects Planned Parenthood’s lawsuit to be dismissed and that “until then, we will continue our diligent efforts to ensure the abortion industry fully follows” the new law.

The law — the farthest-reaching curb on abortions since they were legalized nationwide in 1973 — took effect Wednesday. The Supreme Court then allowed it to remain in force by voting 5 to 4 to deny an emergency appeal from abortion providers.

Coale said the case in which the judge granted the temporary restraining order Friday centers on the issue of “irreparable injury” — whether abortion providers would be overwhelmed by the costs of defending themselves from a potential flood of lawsuits before higher courts could weigh in on the legality of the statute.

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Texas Right to Life has created a website to receive public tips about violations, though the site was down Saturday morning after its host, GoDaddy, said it violated the company’s terms of service, including a provision against collecting identifying information about someone without their consent.

A Texas Right to Life spokeswoman said Friday that the group was moving its tips site to another provider and expected it to be running again within two days.

The site had not received any credible tips about alleged violations as of Friday, said Texas Right to Life’s senior legislative associate, Rebecca Parma.

Supporters of abortion rights have flooded the site with misinformation to bog it down.

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Parma said abortion providers appeared to be “complying with the law, and that’s the whole point of the law in the first place.”


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