Anti-abortion activists gather behind the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. on January 29. Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI | License Photo
Sept. 1 (UPI) -- A new law goes into effect Wednesday in Texas that bans abortion as early as six weeks of pregnancy and allows members of the public to sue anyone who provides or "aids or abets" the procedure in violation of the statute.
Opponents -- including Whole Woman's Health and other abortion providers, advocacy groups and clergy members -- filed a suit in July seeking to have the law declared unconstitutional. On Monday, they made an emergency filing asking the Supreme Court to overturn the statute.
Some churches, alarmed that the law goes too far, are taking on the issue from the pulpit.
Under the law, "any person" except a government official can file a civil suit against alleged violators, and those who prevail are entitled to an award of at least $10,000 per abortion and court costs. The person who sues does not need to have any connection to the abortion.
The Whole Woman's Health lawsuit alleges that the "Heartbeat Act," which was passed by the Texas Legislature in May, was designed to stop abortion providers from getting a court order stopping the law from going into effect. Because private citizens are the ones enforcing the law, government officials can't be sued for an injunction that would block its enforcement.
Even if the "vigilantes" lose, they still will have achieved the law's goal of harassment and possibly bankrupt some abortion providers, the suit claims.
Texas Right to Life, which participated in the drafting of the law, says it recognized that other heartbeat bills met "expeditious deaths in federal courtrooms across the country" so it pushed for legislation that relied only on civil enforcement.
"The abortion industry is clearly attempting to float multiple far-reaching legal arguments in hopes that an activist federal judge will find one they like to thwart this pro-life law from going into effect," the organization says in a statement on its website. "Texas Right to Life is confident that eventually an objective and discerning legal analysis will prevail, causing the lawsuit to be ultimately dismissed."
The Rev. Erika Forbes, an interfaith minister who is a plaintiff in the suit, told UPI on Monday that "there's never been a law like this that has gone this far."
"If I was to go and sit as a clergy person in the abortion clinic with a woman who has already made her choice, and she just wants to have someone comfort her and support her as she comes out, then they're able to sue me," Forbes said.
Others who could be targeted by the law include parents who drive their child to a clinic for an abortion and friends who lend money for the procedure, she said.
Talking about choices
Leaders of Just Texas: Faith Voices for Reproductive Justice announced at an Aug. 25 news conference at First Unitarian Church of Dallas that 25 churches have earned the designation of Reproductive Freedom Congregations since 2016 and about 70 more are in the process of getting it.
The program teaches clergy about reproductive healthcare and encourages them to talk about the subject, including abortion, from the pulpit and individually with members of their congregations.
The congregations discuss their values, determine the level of engagement that best matches those values and pledges "to make the sacred space safe and accepting for everyone." They also affirm that they will trust and respect women; that people who attend the church will be free from stigma, shame or judgment for their reproductive decisions, including abortion; and that they believe access to comprehensive and affordable reproductive health services is a moral and social good.
Forbes, who serves as outreach and faith manager of Just Texas, which is a project of the Texas Freedom Network, said she's gotten a lot of emails and pushback from Christians who believe scripturally that Just Texas' work is not sanctioned by God.
But, she said, "I absolutely have faith and belief that it is."
The Rev. Angela Williams, a Presbyterian pastor and Just Texas senior outreach and faith coordinator, told UPI that it's up to each congregation how it lives out the designation.
The denominations of the churches and faith groups with the designations are Universalist, Baptist and Presbyterian. Episcopal, Methodist, Reform Judaism are among the congregations listed as undergoing the process.
Williams said the news conference was held to get the word out that people of faith support access to abortion. The religious right has dominated the narrative about abortion and Just Texas wants to change the culture by having women tell their stories in their faith communities, she said.
"We know that God is in all of these reproductive decisions and that God is in our reproductive lives with us, whether that's choosing to terminate a pregnancy with an abortion or having a miscarriage or navigating infertility," Williams said. "God is in all of those conversations and in those moments of pain and sadness around reproductive decisions."
She added that "once we change that culture, then you'll stop getting those awful bills put forward in the name of religion. That's our big overarching goal."