Texas fetal heartbeat law faces legal challenges one day before taking effect

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A day before Texas’ new fetal heartbeat law is set to take effect, a judge in Travis County granted several temporary restraining orders preventing certain lawsuits from being filed under the new rules.

Senate Bill 8 was signed into law in May and restricts abortion procedures after a fetal heartbeat is detected, which can happen as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. The law also allows any Texas citizen to sue someone who performs an abortion or aids and abets in the process if a heartbeat is detected in the womb.

The legislation already faced several legal challenges in the weeks leading up to its Sept. 1 implementation, filed by people who feel the definition of “aiding” the abortion process may be too broad.

District Judge Amy Clark Meachum considered three cases on Tuesday morning: one, brought by an attorney and sexual assault victims’ advocate named Michelle Tuegel; another brought by Bridge Collective, a resource group for people seeking an abortion; and another brought by Allie Van Stean, a woman who regularly donates to women’s health clinics.

On Tuesday morning, the judge granted temporary restraining orders (TROs) in all three instances against the group Texas Right to Life. According to attorneys for these three plaintiffs, the TROs prevent Texas Right to Life from filing lawsuits under the new fetal heartbeat law, until the court can conduct a full-scale temporary injunction hearing later in September. 

Their attorneys say the ruling is significant for their clients, because they had to prove “probable right to relief” to get the TRO — meaning they were able to show the judge evidence supporting their challenge to the law’s constitutionality.

“There will be potential for dozens, if not hundreds or thousands, of lawsuits against not just abortion providers,” said one of these attorneys, Jennifer Ecklund. “But also the everyday person, whether it’s a lawyer or a counselor or a rape crisis center.”

They are arguing the new law infringes on their clients’ rights under the Texas and U.S. Constitutions.

“This ruling by a Travis County judge does not change Texas Right to Life’s plans. Texas Right to Life is still legally authorized to sue others who violate the Texas Heartbeat Act, including abortionists.”

Texas Right to Life statement, following district court ruling

KXAN spoke to some of these plaintiffs last week.

Allie Van Stean explained, “Simply donating to places like Planned Parenthood count as aiding and abetting an abortion… If I’m donating to Planned Parenthood, I’m not necessarily giving with the intent to assist women in getting an abortion. Planned Parenthood and other places provide necessary and needed services like birth control at a lower cost, affordable options for women who can’t afford it.”

Michelle Tuegel said she was worried about the broader effect the law will have on her own clients.

“The chilling impact that [the law] will have on women and survivors — and even being willing to pick up the phone and ask for help,” she said.

In a statement, the group Texas Right to Life noted it never threatened to sue these three specific plaintiffs.

Still, Kimberlyn Schwartz, a spokesperson for the group, said the judge’s ruling was “narrow” and only applies to these specific cases. She also clarified it does not block the Texas Heartbeat Act from being broadly enforced at midnight.

“This heartbeat is a sign of life,” she said. “We as Texans are responsible for protecting that life.”

Their group set up an anonymous, online tip form for people to report potentially illegal activity under the law, once it takes affect.

“Really, we are just watching to make sure that abortionists follow the law, that they are not going to kill any pre-born babies once the heartbeat is detectable,” Schwartz said.

Schwartz told KXAN on Tuesday they do not plan to target lawsuits against any women who many be seeking an abortion.

“We see the woman as a victim, too, in this situation. Of her circumstances, of society that has told women they have to have an abortion to be successful. ‘You can’t succeed unless you kill your pre-born baby.’ That’s just wrong. We believe that both lives, the woman and the baby, are valuable in this situation,” she said.

Meanwhile, abortion providers, including Planned Parenthood, have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to block the enforcement of this law, arguing the law would essentially overturn the precedent set by Roe v. Wade.

If the Supreme Court does not intervene, the law will go into effect at midnight.

Janelle B. Smith

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