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Interstate travel becomes a target for the anti-abortion movement with Texas filing


Since Roe v. Wade was overturned in 2022, Texas has been under a near-total abortion ban, and many women have gone outside the state to seek the procedure. Now interstate travel has become a target for the anti-abortion movement. In Texas, a man is trying a new legal tactic against his ex-girlfriend, who allegedly sought an abortion in a state where it's legal. Olivia Aldridge from member station KUT reports.

OLIVIA ALDRIDGE, BYLINE: In a March legal filing, a Texas man named Collin Davis claimed his former girlfriend had an abortion in Colorado. His lawyer, the high-profile anti-abortion attorney Jonathan Mitchell, filed a kind of legal petition used in Texas to get information that could be fodder for a future lawsuit. NPR has seen the petition and is respecting requests for anonymity from the individuals named in the filing. They're concerned about privacy, doxxing, and other safety issues.

The petition asks a state district court for permission to depose Davis' ex-partner along with other people he claims may have helped her access an abortion out of state in Colorado. Mitchell writes in the petition that any findings could be considered in a possible future lawsuit under a Texas law he helped develop, which allows citizens to sue anyone they believe has, quote, aided or abetted an abortion. Mitchell writes that his client was also considering a suit under Texas' wrongful death statute.

MOLLY DUANE: Everything they did was - or allegedly did was entirely legal.

ALDRIDGE: That's attorney Molly Duane with the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is representing the individuals Mitchell seeks to depose. She says it's perfectly legal to travel out of Texas to receive an abortion in a state where the procedure is not banned, such as Colorado, or to help someone else do so.

DUANE: The fearmongering, the confusion that is caused by a filing like this - that's the point.

ALDRIDGE: Anti-abortion attorney Jonathan Mitchell disputes that. In a statement to NPR, he wrote that Texas can sue, quote, "for wrongful death in states with abortion bans, even if the abortion occurs out of state." Although some Texas counties have passed ordinances attempting to restrict travel for abortions on local roads, women still have the right to receive an abortion in states where the procedure is legal. According to recent reporting by the Texas Tribune, it's not the first time Mitchell has attempted to use Texas's presuit discovery process to obtain depositions from individuals, abortion providers and groups that fund the procedure. But so far, none of these petitions has resulted in any depositions. David Noll, a professor at Rutgers law school who specializes in civil procedure, says he believes this petition is unlikely to gain traction.

DAVID NOLL: Most courts, even in Texas, are ultimately going to end up dismissing it. But that doesn't mean these petitions don't have an effect.

ALDRIDGE: A chilling effect, that is. He says they're meant to sow confusion and uncertainty among the general public.

NOLL: It's easy to see how can - this can be quite a terrifying event, right? It's something that looks like a legal proceeding. You're faced with the prospect of being forced to appear for a deposition in front of a lawyer who describes you as a murderer.

ALDRIDGE: Studies show that many women in Texas are confused about their abortion rights. A 2023 study by Resound Research for Reproductive Health found that nearly a quarter of Texas women incorrectly believed a law had been passed banning out-of-state travel for abortion.

Other states have taken legislative steps to stop abortion-related travel. In Idaho, a law prohibiting adults from helping minors leave the state for the procedure without parental consent is currently blocked by the courts. Tennessee is considering a similar bill. Molly Duane says she expects to see more of these efforts.

DUANE: They always start with minors, but they never stop there. I am sure this is the beginning, not the end, and this is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to the anti-abortion lobbies' plans for what comes next.

ALDRIDGE: David Noll from Rutgers law says there's little judicial precedent on these issues. So how far states can go to impose their laws beyond their borders will be hashed out in the courts.

NOLL: It's going to take years for those issues to be litigated and for us to get definitive answers to those questions from the Texas Supreme Court and ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court.

ALDRIDGE: In the meantime, he says, there's a perceived gray area, making room for petitions like this latest in Texas. For NPR news, I'm Olivia Aldridge in Austin.


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Olivia Aldridge
[Copyright 2024 KUT 90.5]