The Thomas More Society, a conservative legal organization, is drafting model legislation for state lawmakers that would allow private citizens to sue anyone who helps a resident of a state that has banned abortion from terminating a pregnancy outside of that state. The draft language will borrow from the novel legal strategy behind a Texas abortion ban enacted last year in which private citizens were empowered to enforce the law through civil litigation.
The subject was much discussed at two national antiabortion conferences last weekend, with several lawmakers interested in introducing these kinds of bills in their own states.
The National Association of Christian Lawmakers, an antiabortion organization led by Republican state legislators, has begun working with the authors of the Texas abortion ban to explore model legislation that would restrict people from crossing state lines for abortions, said Texas state representative Tom Oliverson (R), the charter chair of the group’s national legislative council.
“Just because you jump across a state line doesn’t mean your home state doesn’t have jurisdiction,” said Peter Breen, vice president and senior counsel for the Thomas More Society. “It’s not a free abortion card when you drive across the state line.”
The Biden Justice Department has already warned states that it would fight such laws, saying they violate the right to interstate commerce.
In relying on private citizens to enforce civil litigation, rather than attempting to impose a state-enforced ban on receiving abortions across state lines, such a law is more difficult to challenge in court because abortion rights groups don’t have a clear person to sue.
Like the Texas abortion ban, the proposal itself could have a chilling effect, where doctors in surrounding states stop performing abortions before courts have an opportunity to intervene, worried that they may face lawsuits if they violate the law.
Not every antiabortion group is on board with the idea.
Catherine Glenn Foster, president of Americans United for Life, noted that people access medical procedures across state lines all the time.
“I don’t think you can prevent that,” she said.
While some antiabortion groups aspire to push Congress to pass a national abortion ban, restricting movement across state lines would represent another step in limiting the number of abortions performed in the United States.
These kinds of bills could be proposed even before state legislatures reconvene for their regular 2023 legislative sessions, said Arkansas state Sen. Jason Rapert (R). His home state, he said, may soon address this issue in an already planned special session. Another Arkansas senator, he said, has expressed interest in introducing that legislation.
“Many of us have supported legislation to stop human trafficking,” said Rapert, president of the National Association of Christian Lawmakers. “So why is there a pass on people trafficking women in order to make money off of aborting their babies?”
In a television interview over the weekend, South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R) left the door open to restricting out-of-state abortions in her state, where a trigger ban took effect as soon as Roe was overturned. The governor, who has called a special session to discuss abortion legislation, said the topic may be debated in South Dakota in the future.
Dale Bartscher, the executive director of South Dakota Right to Life, the leading antiabortion organization in South Dakota, said he was “very interested” in stopping South Dakota residents from accessing abortion in other states.
“I’ve heard that bantered about across the state of South Dakota,” he said, though he would not discuss the goal of the upcoming special session.
The idea to restrict out-of-state abortions surfaced earlier this year, when Missouri state Rep. Mary Elizabeth Coleman (R), who is special counsel at the Thomas More Society, proposed legislation that relied on the Texas-style enforcement mechanism. While Coleman’s bill failed to pass in the 2022 legislative session, Coleman said she has heard from multiple lawmakers and antiabortion advocates in other states who are eager to pursue similar legislation.
The issue is particularly pertinent in Coleman’s home state of Missouri, which outlawed abortion with a trigger ban that took effect within an hour of the Supreme Court’s decision. As many as 14,000 people are expected to flood into southern Illinois this year, including thousands of Missouri residents, according to Planned Parenthood.
Several Democrat-led states have passed legislation this year to counteract laws that try to restrict movement across state lines.
Connecticut passed a law in April that offers broad protections from antiabortion laws that try to reach into other states. The measure would shield people from out-of-state summonses or subpoenas issued in cases related to abortion procedures that are legal in Connecticut. And it would prevent Connecticut authorities from adhering to another state’s request to investigate or punish anyone involved in facilitating a legal abortion in Connecticut.
“Legislators in [antiabortion] states have made clear that their intent is not only to ban abortion within their own state’s borders, but to ban it in states where it is expressly permitted,” Connecticut state Rep. Matt Blumenthal (D) said in an interview in April.
California passed a similar law Thursday, aiming to protect abortion providers and patients from civil suits.
The Justice Department has already signaled its intention to fight against these kinds of laws in court.
In a statement Friday, Attorney General Merrick Garland said the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe “does not eliminate the ability of states to keep abortion legal within their borders. And the Constitution continues to restrict states’ authority to ban reproductive services provided outside their borders.”
That declaration suggests that if a particular state did pass a law seeking to prevent women from traveling across state lines to receive an abortion, the Justice Department might file court papers opposing such a law. That strategy was ultimately unsuccessful in the Justice Department’s opposition to the Texas law limiting many abortions, but any new state law that involved interstate travel could raise additional legal questions for the courts.
Garland argued that the Constitution was unequivocal on the legality of crossing state lines for medical treatment.
“We recognize that traveling to obtain reproductive care may not be feasible in many circumstances. But under bedrock constitutional principles, women who reside in states that have banned access to comprehensive reproductive care must remain free to seek that care in states where it is legal,” Garland said, adding that the First Amendment safeguards anyone who offers information or counseling about “reproductive care that is available in other states.”
A Justice Department spokesman did not elaborate on the attorney general’s statement.
David Cohen, a Drexel University law professor who has studied these kinds of proposals, noted that Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh addressed interstate travel in a separate concurring opinion he wrote along with the ruling to overturn Roe, where he specified that people could not be prosecuted for out-of-state abortions.
But Kavanaugh’s concurrence does not address the civil enforcement strategy that is gaining traction among antiabortion groups, Cohen said.
“This is going to create state-against-state and state-against-federal chaos that we haven’t seen in this country in a long time.”
Chris Rowland contributed to this report.
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