Feds exploring options to challenge restrictive Texas Heartbeat Act

Patrick Semansky / AP

Attorney General Merrick Garland said on Monday that the Department of Justice is urgently exploring “all options to challenge” Texas SB8, a new law that bans abortions after around six weeks of pregnancy and allows private citizens to sue those who help a woman obtain an abortion.

“While the Justice Department urgently explores all options to challenge Texas SB8 in order to protect the constitutional rights of women and other persons, including access to an abortion, we will continue to protect those seeking to obtain or provide reproductive health services pursuant to our criminal and civil enforcement of the FACE Act, 18 U.S.C. § 248,” Garland said.

The FACE Act, shorthand for Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances, specifically prohibits threats and physical violence against people seeking to obtain or provide an abortion. It also prohibits damage to a facility providing abortions or a place of religious worship.

“The FACE Act prohibits the use or threat of force and physical obstruction that injures, intimidates, or interferes with a person seeking to obtain or provide reproductive health services. It also prohibits intentional property damage of a facility providing reproductive health services. The department has consistently obtained criminal and civil remedies for violations of the FACE Act since it was signed into law in 1994, and it will continue to do so now,” Garland added.

A DOJ Civil Rights Division memo last updated in 2015 says officials have filed over 15 FACE actions across the US, including a preliminary injunction against 35 people who blockaded a facility in a Philadelphia suburb.

Garland added that the department would provide support from federal law enforcement when an abortion facility is targeted, and plans to work in tandem with local FBI and US Attorney’s Offices in Texas.

The new law in Texas is one of the most restrictive laws on abortion in the country, a divided topic that can intertwine closely with politics and religion at times. The law bars abortions as soon as cardiac activity is detected for the unborn child, which is usually around six weeks — before many even know they’re pregnant.

The law allows individuals to sue abortion providers, as well as rideshare drivers who bring women to abortion appointments. Companies Lyft and Uber said on Friday that they would cover legal fees for any of their drivers sued under the new law.

““Drivers are never responsible for monitoring where their riders go or why. Imagine being a driver and not knowing if you are breaking the law by giving someone a ride,” Lyft said in a press release. “Similarly, riders never have to justify, or even share, where they are going and why. Imagine being a pregnant woman trying to get to a healthcare appointment and not knowing if your driver will cancel on you for fear of breaking a law. Both are completely unacceptable.”

Anyone who successfully sues an abortion provider can be awarded at least $10,000. Officials set up an online whistleblower tip line that was almost immediately flooded by abortion rights activists. The website has since been taken down by GoDaddy, who cited violations of privacy and data collection.

The act makes no exceptions for rape or incest, effectively forcing women to bare children created by possible traumatic experiences and even crimes. The only way an abortion can be carried out after six weeks, according to the bill, is “if a physician believes that a medical emergency exists.”

The law came into effect after the Supreme Court’s conservative majority declined to rule on a request filed by abortion providers to block the bill, saying it couldn’t be blocked due to “complex” and “novel” issues, even though “serious questions” had been raised regarding the law’s constitutionality.

President Joe Biden has strongly criticized the bill, which he calls “extreme” and a blatant violation of the constitution.

“This extreme Texas law blatantly violates the constitutional right established under Roe v. Wade and upheld as precedent for nearly half a century,” Biden said last week.

He continued, “The Texas law will significantly impair women’s access to the health care they need, particularly for communities of color and individuals with low incomes. And, outrageously, it deputizes private citizens to bring lawsuits against anyone who they believe has helped another person get an abortion, which might even include family members, health care workers, front desk staff at a health care clinic, or strangers with no connection to the individual.”