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Justice Department says US will ‘protect’ Texas women seeking abortions

  • >>Aishvarya Kavi, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-09-07 12:11:36 BdST

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Demonstrators outside the US Supreme Court in Washington, days after the justices declined to block a near-total ban on abortion in Texas, Sept 4, 2021. Attorney General Merrick Garland said on Monday that the Department of Justice would enforce a federal law making it illegal to threaten or obstruct someone who is seeking access to an abortion clinic. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)

Attorney General Merrick Garland said Monday that the Department of Justice would continue to protect women who seek an abortion in Texas, days after a state law enacting a near-complete ban on the procedure went in effect.

“We will not tolerate violence against those seeking to obtain or provide reproductive health services,” Garland said in a statement. “The department will provide support from federal law enforcement when an abortion clinic or reproductive health centre is under attack.”

Garland said the Department of Justice would “protect the constitutional rights of women and other persons” under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, or FACE, a 1994 federal law that guarantees access to the entrances of clinics that offer reproductive health services, including those that offer abortions. Under the law, it is illegal to threaten, obstruct or injure a person seeking access to such a clinic or to damage the clinic’s property, punishable by a fine or imprisonment.

In his statement, Garland did not directly challenge the Texas law, known as Senate Bill 8, which is the most restrictive in the nation and bans all abortions when cardiac activity can be detected. That is usually around six weeks into the pregnancy and before many women know that they are pregnant. The law includes no exceptions for pregnancies caused by rape or incest.

Garland’s statement appeared to be an initial step by the Biden administration to find a way to counter a state law that has pushed the issue of abortion rights back into the centre of American politics.

“I think he was trying to send a signal to people on the ground that they need to physically leave clinics alone. I think there’s a concern that, from reports on the ground, activists are hanging out at the clinics and they’re watching who goes in and out,” said Howard Wasserman, a law professor at Florida International University in Miami. “There may be some intimidation going on, and so FACE would be a way to stop that.”

Senate Bill 8 prohibits state officials from enforcing the abortion ban, a feature intended to make it difficult to challenge in the courts. Instead, it effectively deputizes ordinary citizens to sue anyone who performs the procedure or “aids and abets” it. Plaintiffs are entitled to at least $10,000 if they are successful.

Gov. Greg Abbott signed the measure into law in May. It went into effect Wednesday after the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 vote, decided not to block it, despite the precedent of Roe v Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that established a constitutional right to abortion.

Though the majority stressed that it was not ruling on the constitutionality of the Texas law, the decision appeared to confirm the worst fears of reproductive rights activists, who have warned that conservatives were moving aggressively to put in place a court majority that would upend abortion rights.

Garland’s statement did not go into detail on what support from federal law enforcement for those seeking abortions would look like, though he said that the Department of Justice had reached out to the FBI and US attorney’s offices in Texas and around the county “to discuss our enforcement authorities.”

President Joe Biden, in a statement last week, slammed the Texas law as “an unprecedented assault on a woman’s constitutional rights.” He pointed to the law’s provision allowing citizens to sue those who violate the statute, saying “complete strangers will now be empowered to inject themselves in the most private and personal health decisions faced by women.”

In response to a question from a reporter, Biden said Friday that his administration was exploring federal action to counteract the Texas law.

“I was told that there are possibilities within the existing law to have the Justice Department look and see whether there are things that can be done that can limit the independent action of individuals,” he said.

Earlier last week, Biden directed the Office of the White House Council and federal agencies, including the Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services, to look into steps the federal government could take to protect “access to safe and legal abortions.”

While the enforcement of the FACE Act may “improve the situation on the ground,” Wasserman said the Biden administration was “going to have to find a different way to get” at the larger problem the Texas bill posed to abortion rights: the ability for any citizen to sue an abortion clinic or anyone else who assists with an abortion.

In his statement, Garland added that the Department of Justice was still “urgently” exploring “all options” to challenge the Texas law.

©The New York Times Company