HOUSTON — A man in Arkansas and another in Illinois on Monday filed what appeared to be the first legal actions under a strict new abortion law in Texas that is enforced by ordinary citizens, regardless of where they live.
The Arkansas man, Oscar Stilley, who was described in the complaint as a “disbarred and disgraced” lawyer, said in an interview that he had filed the lawsuit against a Texas doctor, who publicly wrote about performing an abortion, to test the provisions of the law. The Supreme Court declined to stop the law, which has effectively ended most abortions in the state since going into effect this month.
The law bars enforcement by state officials, a novel maneuver aimed at circumventing judicial review, and instead relies on citizens to file legal claims against abortion providers or anyone suspected of “aiding or abetting” an abortion. Successful suits can bring the plaintiffs awards of at least $10,000.
Proponents of the law and anti-abortion activists had been satisfied that the threat of legal action appeared to stop most abortions in Texas. Some feared that the openness of the law — allowing anyone to file suit — could result in a first test case that was unfavorable to their cause.
Mr. Stilley said he was not trying to halt abortions by Dr. Alan Braid, a San Antonio physician who wrote in The Washington Post on Saturday that he had violated the Texas law — which prohibits abortions after cardiac activity is detected, or roughly six weeks into pregnancy.
“I’m not pro-life,” Mr. Stilley, 58, said in an interview. “The thing that I’m trying to vindicate here is the law. We pride ourselves on being a nation of laws. What’s the law?”
The Justice Department has sued Texas over the law, known as Senate Bill 8, and argued in an emergency motion last week that the state adopted the measure “to prevent women from exercising their constitutional rights.”
“It is settled constitutional law that ‘a state may not prohibit any woman from making the ultimate decision to terminate her pregnancy before viability,’” the department said in the lawsuit, referring to the standard set in the 1973 landmark case Roe v. Wade. “But Texas has done just that.”
Dr. Braid was also sued on Monday by an Illinois man, Felipe N. Gomez, who described himself in his complaint as a “pro-choice plaintiff.” Mr. Gomez could not be immediately reached for comment about his lawsuit, which was earlier reported by KSAT news in San Antonio.
Both suits were filed in state court in San Antonio and both men are representing themselves.
“Neither of these lawsuits are valid attempts to save innocent human lives,” said John Seago, legislative director for Texas Right to Life, the state’s largest anti-abortion group, which lobbied for the new abortion law. “Both cases are self-serving legal stunts, abusing the cause of action created in the Texas Heartbeat Act for their own purposes.”
He added that he and others at Texas Right to Life “believe Braid published his Op-Ed intending to attract imprudent lawsuits.”
The Center for Reproductive Rights, an abortion rights group that represents Dr. Braid, said he had not been formally served and declined to make him available for an interview. In a statement, the group’s senior counsel, Marc Hearron, said the Texas law “says that ‘any person’ can sue over a violation, and we are starting to see that happen, including by out-of-state claimants.”
In his opinion essay for The Post, Dr. Braid said he had decided to violate the Texas law, which makes no exceptions for rape or incest, out of a firm belief in abortion rights. “I have daughters, granddaughters and nieces. I believe abortion is an essential part of health care,” he wrote. “I have spent the past 50 years treating and helping patients. I can’t just sit back and watch us return to 1972.”
Understand the Texas Abortion Law
The most restrictive in the country. The Texas abortion law, known as Senate Bill 8, amounts to a nearly complete ban on abortion in the state. It prohibits most abortions after about six weeks of preganancy and makes no exceptions for pregnancies resulting from incest or rape.
Citizens, not the state, will enforce the law. The law effectively deputizes ordinary citizens — including those from outside Texas — allowing them to sue clinics and others who violate the law. It awards them at least $10,000 per illegal abortion if they are successful.
Patients cannot be sued. The law allows doctors, staff and even a patient’s Uber driver to become potential defendants.
The Supreme Court’s decision. The Supreme Court refused just before midnight on Wednesday to block a Texas law prohibiting most abortions, less than a day after it took effect and became the most restrictive abortion measure in the nation. The vote was 5 to 4, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. joining the court’s three liberal members in dissent.
Mr. Braid wrote that on the morning of Sept. 6, he had “provided an abortion to a woman who, though still in her first trimester, was beyond the state’s new limit.”
After reading that, Mr. Stilley said he decided to file suit. His complaint includes a description of his own legal troubles, which he said included a federal conviction for tax evasion and conspiracy; he was released to home confinement after a decade in prison.
Mr. Stilley said in the interview that he believed in a woman’s right not to have an unwanted child, and that because his lawsuit was a win-win for him, he rushed to file it.
“I’m going to get an answer either way,” he said. “If this is a free-for-all, and it’s $10,000, I want my $10,000. And yes, I do aim to collect.”
Ruth Graham contributed reporting from Dallas.
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