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DOJ documents impacts of Texas abortion ban in new court filings

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(WASHINGTON) — Women driving hundreds of miles alone for an abortion, clinics overwhelmed with out-of-state patients, providers facing “relentless harassment” from “emboldened vigilante activities,” those are some of the impacts detailed by the federal government in new court documents since the most restrictive abortion law went into effect in Texas earlier this month.

Nearly a week after announcing a lawsuit against the state, the U.S. Department of Justice filed for an immediate injunction Tuesday to halt the enforcement of the law, known as SB8, which bars physicians from providing abortions once they detect a so-called fetal heartbeat — technically the flutter of electrical activity within the cells in an embryo. That can be seen on an ultrasound as early as six weeks into a pregnancy — before many women even know they’re pregnant.

In their latest filing, the DOJ documented the impact of the unprecedented law based on declarations from the leaders of women’s health clinics, doctors and abortion rights advocates in support of the motion for a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction.

“The devastating effects warned of in the pre-enforcement litigation immediately became a reality for patients and providers in Texas,” the emergency motion states. “S.B. 8 has gravely and irreparably impaired women’s ability to exercise their constitutional right to an abortion across the State.”

Under the law, between 85% and 95% of all abortions previously provided will stop, according to the motion. One Planned Parenthood affiliate in Texas went from providing 205 abortions the week before SB8 went into effect, to 52 the week after, according to the court documents.

As a result, “Women are being forced to travel hundreds — and sometimes thousands — of miles to obtain an abortion under harrowing circumstances in the middle of a COVID surge,” the motion states.

The DOJ recounted the experience of one patient, a minor, who was allegedly raped by a family member and traveled eight hours, from Galveston, Texas, to Oklahoma, for an abortion. There is an exception under the Texas law for abortions in cases of medical emergencies, but not for cases of incest or rape.

“[Other] survivors of sexual assault have to bear the additional burden of taking time off work and arranging childcare because abortions are not available in Texas,” the motion states.

According to the court documents, one patient drove a 1,000-mile roundtrip alone “because she didn’t have paid time off work and couldn’t afford” to miss her shift. Another “piled her children into her car and drove over 15 hours overnight to obtain a medication abortion in Kansas rather than struggle to patch together the money needed for airfare and child care or remain in limbo,” Anna Rupani, co-executive director of the advocacy group Fund Texas Choice, said in her declaration.

One patient traveled six hours each way to Oklahoma alone because she was worried she would make someone liable for helping her, the court documents state. Under SB8, private citizens can sue a person they “reasonably believed” provided an illegal abortion or assisted someone in getting it in the state, such as by driving them to an appointment.

On average, patients are traveling 650 miles each way to get to abortion clinics in the Southwest, according to the DOJ. The waits and logistical hurdles in planning travel to another state “have made it such that some women are no longer eligible for a medication abortion and instead are subjected to more invasive procedural abortions,” the motion states.

SB8 not only affects Texans, but has had an “extreme impact on the rights of women in other states,” the motion argues. Clinics in nearby states, including Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico and Colorado, have been “overwhelmed” by an influx of Texas residents seeking abortions, with clinics in Tulsa and Oklahoma City in particular seeing an “overall staggering 646% increase” in Texan patients compared to the first six months of the year, according to the court documents.

Planned Parenthood health centers in Oklahoma are seeing scheduling backlogs of “several weeks” due to the number of Texan patients, while some clinics are simply unable to accommodate large numbers of out-of-state patients due to current demands and staffing challenges “given the current threats from S.B. 8 layered atop the challenges of hiring in a pandemic,” according to the court documents.

Abortion clinic staff have also been impacted, the DOJ argues, as SB8 has “emboldened vigilante activities” against abortion providers and staff, including yelling at, recording and trying to follow them home.”

Staff are also concerned about the threat of potential lawsuits. Whole Woman’s Health, which has 17 doctors on staff across its three abortion facilities in Texas, reported that only one doctor “unconditionally agreed to work” after the law was enacted, according to the court documents.

“For most of our physicians, the risk was too great to even come to work,” Amy Hagstrom Miller, president and CEO of Whole Woman’s Health, said in her declaration.

Some clinics risk closure for good under the law, supporters of an immediate injunction said.

“If the law remains in effect for an extended period of time, and we are only able to serve a fraction of our patients with a fraction of our staff, we will have to shutter our doors and stop providing any healthcare to the communities we serve,” Hagstrom Miller said. “I believe that, without court-ordered relief in the next couple of weeks, S.B. 8 will shutter most if not all of the remaining abortion clinics in Texas.”

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