Judge shields some Texas abortion clinics from group's suits

Associated Press

Austin, Texas — A judge has temporarily shielded some Texas abortion clinics from being sued by the state’s largest anti-abortion group under a new law banning most abortions.

The temporary restraining order issued Friday by District Judge Maya Guerra Gamble in Austin in response to the Planned Parenthood request does not interfere with the enforcement of the law. However, it shields Planned Parenthood’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.

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

A hearing on a preliminary injunction request is scheduled for Sept. 13. The temporary restraining order only shields Planned Parenthood clinics from Texas Right to Life lawsuits and doesn’t prevent Texas Right to Life from suing non-Planned Parenthood abortion clinics in Texas. It also doesn’t prevent people who aren’t affiliated with the Texas Right to Life from suing Planned Parenthood.

The law, which took effect Wednesday, prohibits abortions once medical professionals can detect cardiac activity, which is usually around the sixth week of pregnancy and before some women realize they’re pregnant. The law also leaves enforcement to private citizens through lawsuits instead of to prosecutors through criminal charges.

Planned Parenthood 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 medical professionals can detect cardiac activity. It said historically, 85% to 90% of women who have gotten abortions in Texas were at least six weeks into their pregnancies.

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

Texas Right to Life Vice President Elizabeth Graham said in a statement that her group expects the 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, which is the nation’s most far-reaching curb on abortions since they were legalized a half-century ago, took effect Wednesday. The Supreme Court then allowed it to remain in force by voting 5-4 to deny an emergency appeal from abortion providers.

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

FILE - In this Aug. 21, 2019 file photo, a sign is displayed at Planned Parenthood of Utah in Salt Lake City. Federal officials say they’re redirecting nearly $34 million to cover gaps in access to birth control by low-income women after Trump administration abortion restrictions led to an exodus of clinics from the federal family planning program. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

The site, which has inspired activists on social media to encourage people to flood it with misinformation, had not as of Friday received any credible tips about alleged violations, said Texas Right to Life’s senior legislative associate, Rebecca Parma.

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