Aiding and abetting abortion
Texas Right to Life responds to concerns about the new heartbeat law
The ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft announced earlier this month they would cover legal fees for drivers caught up in future lawsuits involving Texas’ new abortion law. The measure protects babies from abortion after they have a detectable heartbeat.
Lyft, based in San Francisco, pledged to cover 100 percent of such legal fees through its Driver Legal Defense Fund and to donate $1 million to Planned Parenthood.
The Texas heartbeat legislation allows citizens to sue anyone who performs an abortion on a baby with a heartbeat or “knowingly engages in conduct that aids or abets the performance or inducement of an abortion.” Opponents of the law are concerned it will open up a market for bounty hunters in the state. They suggest people will sue those who unknowingly help a woman get an abortion—like the Uber or Lyft driver who takes someone to Planned Parenthood—all to get a promised $10,000 reward.
“We do not believe that these are serious concerns,” said John Seago, legislative director for Texas Right to Life.
A judge in Travis County, Texas, issued an injunction on Monday that prevents Texas Right to Life staff and a list of individuals affiliated with the organization from filing one of those lawsuits against Planned Parenthood. The injunction will stay in place until April 2022. But Texas Right to Life emphasized in a press release that other citizens can still sue Planned Parenthood if it breaks the law, and the nonprofit group can bring other abortion organizations to court if necessary.
Seago said while the bill itself does not define “aid or abet,” the terms have a defined standard that judges use every day. Section 7.02 of the Texas penal code addresses
“criminal responsibility for conduct of another.”
The existing legal standard sets a pretty high bar, Seago said, and likely the only parties to face penalties will be nonprofits that help a woman pay for an illegal abortion and someone in the room when the abortion is happening. Especially since the law allows abortions before about six weeks, simply driving someone to Planned Parenthood isn’t enough to incur guilt.
Judges will ask questions in court to determine, as in other criminal cases, whether a person associated with a crime has actually participated. “At the end of the day, this question is going to be in front of Texas judges,” Seago said. “No one is going to accidentally end up breaking the law.”
He also dismissed the concern about bounty hunters. Since any citizen can collect at least $10,000 plus attorney’s fees for successfully suing someone who breaks the heartbeat law, groups have complained people will try to make money by turning in fellow citizens. But Seago said $10,000 isn’t actually that much considering the effort of getting a lawyer and the time required for a court case. The possibility of monetary compensation is essential to making sure the law is effective.
“You’ve got to have an incentive to actually make sure that these are going to be brought,” he said. “You want to make sure that we’re not saying that the only way this law gets enforced is if individuals donate their time and money to the state of Texas doing a job that the state of Texas should be doing.”
This sort of incentive isn’t unique to the heartbeat bill, Seago noted. Civil liability exists in other public policy areas, allowing citizens’ ability to sue physicians they think are guilty of Medicaid fraud or bring lawsuits against companies breaking environmental regulations. In both cases, citizens who prove guilt can often take home cash, he said.
Steven Aden with Americans United for Life doesn’t think courts will ultimately uphold the law because it goes against precedent set by Roe v. Wade. On Thursday, the Justice Department sued Texas over the law, asking a federal judge to declare it unconstitutional. But Aden still thinks cries about vigilante justice and bounty hunters are “designed to raise fears that are overblown and inappropriate.”
“To invite individuals into court to settle disputes is to ensure that the settlement will be peaceable,” Aden said. “They’re ensuring that this dispute will be settled in an amicable way in a context where there is due process and the right to be heard. I think that’s a good thing.”
Seago said he’s relying on the courts to correctly interpret the law and protect defendants from individuals who repeatedly file baseless lawsuits for extra cash. He said he doesn’t see any problems with the law as it is written, but that could change. “The law is untested,” he said. “Maybe some clarification or amendments may be needed in the future.”
But that is for the courts to decide.
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