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A Texas lawsuit could have far-reaching implications for abortion pill access

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A Texas man is suing three women, claiming they illegally helped his now ex-wife get abortion pills last summer to end her pregnancy. He's seeking millions of dollars in damages in a case that could have implications beyond the three defendants. NPR's Sarah McCammon is following this, and she's with us now to tell us more about it. Sarah, thanks so much for joining us.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: What exactly does this lawsuit claim?

MCCAMMON: So the man, Marcus A. Silva from Galveston County, Texas, claims that last July, his then-wife discovered she was pregnant by him. And because abortion is illegal in Texas, she reached out for help to the three women. He claims they, quote, "conspired with her to obtain abortion pills and end the pregnancy at home." And he's suing each of the women in civil court for at least a million dollars. Now, the Silva's divorce was finalized just last month, but they were in the process of divorcing when this occurred last summer. And in one text message contained in court documents that were exchanged with two of the defendants, the woman worries that if she told Silva about the pregnancy, quote, "he would use it to try to stay with me."

MARTIN: So tell us just a bit more about, I guess, the bigger picture here and where this fits into kind of the larger abortion issue.

MCCAMMON: Well, it's believed to be the first case of its kind in the aftermath of last summer's Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade. And Silva's lawyers are very clear that they hope this case will have implications well beyond these three defendants and beyond Texas. I spoke to one of the lawyers, Peter Breen of the Thomas More Society, which is a conservative Catholic legal group.

PETER BREEN: We intend to get further, well beyond those who may have directly provided the pill to the mother of the child. Certainly, we want to get to this whole network that brought about this illegal abortion in the first place.

MCCAMMON: And Breen told me that he hopes to use what's known as the discovery process in the lawsuit, which gives lawyers an opportunity to uncover more evidence, to go after anyone who might have been part of what he describes as the chain of people involved in distributing abortion pills. Breen says that could eventually mean manufacturers, pharmacies and organizations that help people get abortions.

MARTIN: So, Sarah, you remember the SB8. This is that state law we've heard so much about.

MCCAMMON: Right.

MARTIN: Is this lawsuit connected to that?

MCCAMMON: I know it sounds a lot like that, but it is not directly connected. That law enables people to file civil lawsuits against anyone who provides an abortion or help someone else get one. The lead attorney in this case is Jonathan Mitchell, a well-known conservative lawyer with a long history of anti-abortion efforts, including helping to craft SB8. But this lawsuit, while it is going after people accused of helping someone get an abortion, it does so by accusing the women of violating Texas's wrongful death and murder statutes, not SB8.

MARTIN: So has there been any response from the defendants?

MCCAMMON: No public statement so far from the three women named as defendants. But reproductive rights groups tell me they're looking closely at this lawsuit. They're taking it very seriously. Elizabeth Myers is an attorney in Dallas who represents several Texas-based groups that assist people seeking abortions with things like money and travel.

ELIZABETH MYERS: Anyone trying to help a Texan access care, particularly in the state of Texas, is at really serious legal risk. And my strong suspicion is that it will further drive all assistance into a space that is very secretive and fear filled.

MCCAMMON: Another concern I've been hearing is that while this is a civil suit, it describes the abortion repeatedly using words like criminal and murder. And it points to criminal statutes in Texas that are now in effect after the Supreme Court decision. Peter Breen, Silva's attorney, says they're trying to make the case that abortion should be treated as murder. And he hopes that Texas prosecutors will take note. And they say they are ready to file more lawsuits in other jurisdictions or other states if the opportunity arises.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Sarah McCammon. Sarah, thank you.

MCCAMMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.