This Is the Moment Anti-Abortion Extremists Have Been Waiting For

Demonstrators outside the Supreme Court on March 2, 2016, as justices heard oral arguments in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Texas’s new abortion ban — which the Supreme Court quietly refused to block last week, in the dead of night — is sadistic and convoluted, even by your typical abortion-ban standards. It prohibits all abortions after just six weeks, well before most people even realize they’re pregnant, and has no exception for cases of rape or incest.

What sets the Texas law apart — and what makes it so insidious and scary — is how it will be enforced. It allows any person to sue anyone they suspect of “aiding or abetting” an abortion, in civil court, for a minimum of $10,000. It amounts to a state-sanctioned bounty, not just on abortion providers, but on any individual who helps someone access abortion care in any way. It effectively deputizes ordinary citizens as agents of the state’s repressive agenda.

The implications are chilling. It means that a rapist could sue his victim’s mother for driving her to a clinic, or that someone could face a lawsuit for lending money to a friend in a desperate situation. And it will undoubtedly embolden anti-abortion extremists, who already see themselves as righteous crusaders as they harass, stalk, and menace providers and patients.

“For the people who have been following and surveilling abortion providers already, this law basically says to them, ‘What you’ve been doing is a social good. Now use it to harm abortion providers even more,’” says David Cohen, a professor at Drexel University who specializes in anti-abortion extremism. For years, zealots have harassed patients outside of clinics, written down their license plate numbers, videotaped people entering and exiting the facilities. They’ve memorized the names of clinic workers and sent threatening letters to their family members. They’ve posted personal information about doctors in meticulously kept online databases, flyer-ed providers’ neighborhoods with “wanted” posters, and picketed outside their homes; in one case, they protested outside the middle school of a child whose father was the landlord of a clinic. This can, and has, spilled over into violence: shootings, arson, and vandalism.

This threat is not abstract; we know what we can expect. Texas has given radical fringe groups a powerful legal weapon with which they can harass providers — using the same aggressive and intimidating tactics they’ve always employed, but to a new, more threatening end. And on an ideological level, it sends a clear message, one that will resonate with anti-choicers throughout the country: The state is behind you, and so is the Supreme Court.

We’re already seeing extremists take advantage of the law. Weeks ago, Texas Right to Life set up an anonymous “tip line” for suspected violations of the law, with the goal of ensuring that abortion providers — “these lawbreakers,” as the website venomously puts it — “are held accountable for their actions.” And the day before the law took effect, as doctors at Whole Woman’s Health in Fort Worth worked through the night to see as many patients as they could, a group of protesters posted up in the parking lot, shining massive floodlights into the building; they also called the police and the fire department, even though the clinic wasn’t doing anything illegal.

“We were under surveillance,” said Amy Hagstrom Miller, the CEO of Whole Woman’s Health, in a phone interview. “The protesters were there the whole time, and stayed all the way until midnight … just to be sure the staff and doctors knew they were there, watching.”

What has been allowed to happen in Texas is sobering and illuminating in several ways. That the Supreme Court didn’t strike down such a blatantly unconstitutional law is telling — it’s a clear indication that it’ll overturn Roe v. Wade when given the chance (some would argue that it already essentially has). It also serves to show how cynical, how cruel, how devoid of morals the anti-choice movement is: Anti-abortion politicians have done everything in their power to whittle away access until it’s next to nothing, despite the fact that most Americans support the right to choose.

Texas is an egregious example, though it’s far from an isolated one. In the past several years, lawmakers there have passed a series of intentionally draconian rules, forcing over half the clinics in the state to close. They’ve proposed regulations that would require women to make funeral arrangements for fetuses. They even debated a bill that would make abortion punishable by death two years ago. Although it’s horrifying that anti-choicers would openly encourage anti-abortion vigilantism, in this context, it’s not all that surprising. The truth is that anti-choice politicians need to ally with extremists because their views are extreme. Abortion is nowhere near as controversial as right-wingers (and liberal politicians too feckless to stand up for it) would make it seem: In a recent poll, almost 60 percent of Americans said they want Roe v. Wade to stand. For 30 years now, the majority of people in this country have felt that way.

The future of reproductive rights in the United States has rarely felt so precarious. But it’s important to keep in mind that such cunning tactics aren’t new. Even before Roe came under direct attack, extremists in the streets and on state legislatures did everything they could to make abortion a right in name only, rendering it completely inaccessible to millions — low-income women and women of color in particular.

All we can do is push forward in whatever ways we can. It’s reassuring, at least, to think of how resilient abortion providers and their supporters have been, how resilient they will keep being. Clinics in Texas are still open, still assisting the patients they can and referring those they can’t out of state. Abortion funds are as active as ever. And more and more, activists are working to educate people about self-managed abortion with pills. If we can’t trust our elected officials to act in our best interests, we have to help each other in whatever ways we can. What other choice do we have?

Anti-Abortion Extremists Have Been Waiting for This Moment