These Texas Abortion Petitions Are Targeted Harassment

An anti-abortion attorney’s attempts to depose nine women, abortion providers, and funds have been unsuccessful, the Texas Tribune reports—because his goal is terror and confusion, not successful lawsuits.

Abortion
These Texas Abortion Petitions Are Targeted Harassment

Anti-abortion attorney Jonathan Mitchell has made a name for himself pioneering insidious bills to ban or push abortion entirely out-of-reach, and by taking on legal clients who are among the worst people to populate the Earth. One of the abortion laws he’s responsible for is Texas’ S.B. 8, the state’s notorious “bounty hunter” law that allows people to sue anyone in the state who helps someone get an abortion for at least $10,000. More recently, Mitchell has filed legal petitions against at least nine women, abortion providers, and funds for violating Texas laws, despite no actual wrongdoing from any of the defendants.

These nine petitions have the intent of forcing defendants into interrogation-style depositions to collect information for a potential lawsuit, but according to a new report in the Texas Tribune, that’s happened in exactly zero of them. What this underscores is that, more than anything, Mitchell’s legal actions are about terror and harassment, and instilling enough confusion and fear that pregnant people won’t seek help traveling out of state for abortion—even though it’s entirely legal to do so.

Earlier this month, the Center for Reproductive Rights shared that Mitchell has filed a legal petition against one of their clients on behalf of the woman’s ex-partner, a Texas man who is accusing her of traveling out of state for abortion care. Mitchell’s client is also threatening legal action against the people who allegedly helped her. Per the Tribune, Mitchell has filed another petition on behalf of another man against his ex-partner, who also allegedly sought abortion care out of state; a judge granted the petition to allow the woman to be deposed, but that is on hold pending an appeal from the woman’s attorneys. 

In a filing obtained by the Tribune, that woman’s lawyers say that enabling Mitchell’s strategy of intimidation and harassment would endanger women across the state. Under the guise of preparing and collecting information for a potential lawsuit, petitioners like Mitchell “would be entitled to depose and seek documents from any woman who is not now pregnant, but was rumored to be at some time.” They argue that “any woman who has a miscarriage could be subject to a forced interrogation,” and “any scorned lover could harass or intimidate their ex … for simply receiving a false-positive pregnancy test.”

Earlier this month, Molly Duane, a senior attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights representing one of the women Mitchell is taking legal action against, told Jezebel that Mitchell’s actions show how abortion laws can be weaponized as a tool in the toolbox of abusers—even if the women they’re victimizing aren’t breaking the law at all. “Anti-abortion lawmakers often say they would never punish the woman, but that’s simply not true. Even if abortion bans don’t technically criminalize the abortion seeker, anti-abortion extremists use other laws all the time to target them,” Duane said. 

For years, experts warned that abortion bans could be wielded to control or punish a partner’s reproductive decisions. Last summer, the National Domestic Violence Hotline reported that calls involving acts of reproductive coercion, or abusive partners trying to coerce their victims’ reproductive decision-making, had doubled since the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022.

On top of the restrictions on abortion, Mitchell is demonstrating how to wield “misinformation and terror” to pose another barrier to stop people from having abortions. “This is all part of a years-long extremist campaign, where normal people just living their lives can now be targeted with this type of deeply troubling harassment,” Duane said.

Mitchell has also taken ongoing legal action against several Texas abortion funds, although a federal judge ruled last year that abortion funds are likely safe from prosecution, as Texas’ abortion bans apply to in-state conduct. He’s also filed petitions against two abortion providers formerly based in Texas who moved out of state after the Dobbs decision; an abortion researcher at the University of Texas at Austin; and a company that offered to pay for Texas-based employees’ abortion-related, out of state travel. These petitions have not led to depositions or lawsuits.

“These … proceedings are just about scaring people into thinking they can’t help somebody going out of state to have an abortion, or they’re going to go after them with a lawsuit. It’s not about a lawsuit, it’s about using fear to induce compliance,” Charles Rhodes, a professor at South Texas College of Law Houston, told the Tribune. He called Mitchell’s actions attempting to force depositions “harassment.” 

As Mitchell’s strategy now seems to have expanded to target women who have allegedly sought abortion out-of-state and broken no laws, Lonny Hoffman, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center, told the outlet that these petitions aren’t even about bringing forth lawsuits. They’re about [threatening] to get the woman in front of a court reporter and force her to answer questions, and it has exactly the chilling effect that they want.”

“To be clear, every person has a constitutional right to travel across state lines to get abortion care in states where it is legal,” Nancy Northrup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement shared with Jezebel earlier this month. “But … the anti-abortion movement wants to deny abortion access nationwide, and this is a terrifying step in that direction.”

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