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Stepankowsky column: Texas law empowers vigilante actions

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During the dictatorship of Josef Stalin, the Soviet Union during the 1930s and again following World War II was “a telling society.” Not only was the population subject to oppressive KGB scrutiny and persecution, the secret police encouraged citizens to inform on their neighbors, co-workers and even family members.

Andre Stepankowsky

ANDRE STEPANKOWSKY

The slightest suspicion, misstep or cause for jealousy could earn one a trip to a gulag, to be hauled off in the middle of the night without cause and to be executed after secret trials.

In a word, Stalinist Russia encouraged vigilante justice. It might seem a long way from America in 2021, but that is exactly what Texas Republicans have condoned with passage of the state’s new abortion law.

It is a dangerous and offensive piece of legislation, even to someone like myself who finds abortion repugnant.

Senate Bill 8, as the Texas law is called, bans abortions once an embryo has a heartbeat. This typically occurs around the sixth week of pregnancy, before many women even know they are carrying a child.

But get this: The law, in an effort to avoid a clash with the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, actually bars officials from enforcing it. Instead, Senate Bill 8 deputizes private citizens to sue anyone who performs an abortion or in any way assists. Someone without any connection whatsoever to the patient or clinic may sue for up to $10,000.

The legislation is Stalinist in nature, even if the people targeted by it are not going to be sent off to execution. It is authorizing citizens to spy on and sue their neighbors and fellow community members who want — whether you agree with it or not — to exercise a constitutionally allowed reproductive right.

So the party that defies vaccine mandates on grounds they infringe on a person’s right to make medical choices now wants to infringe on a woman’s right to choose and exercise control of her own body. What hypocrisy — and so much for freedom.

Vigilante law enforcement is not totally new. Citizens can sue polluters if they believe the government is not enforcing air and water pollution laws. But the right is restricted. Now, however, the GOP is empowering members of the public as a new way of fighting the culture wars. In Tennessee, for example, students, teachers and employees of public schools can sue schools if they share a bathroom with a transgender person. In Florida, student athletes can sue their school if it allows a transgender athlete to play, according to The Texas Tribune. Citizen civil suits are an emerging weapon in the radical right’s arsenal, and it has its dangers.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want citizens enforcing any law, whether they be anti-abortion crusaders, Planned Parenthood, the Proud Boys, or whoever wants to pursue some kind of culture warfare. Law enforcement is the job of legislators, prosecutors, police and other government officials. They know the law, the ethics involved and have the ability to investigate fully. And they are subject to public scrutiny and removal from office, unlike lawsuit-slinging citizen crusaders.

The conservative-dominated U.S. Supreme Court, on a 5-4 vote, rejected an effort to stop Senate Bill 8 from taking effect. However, the court acted largely on a narrow legal point. The law clearly poses constitutional issues and likely will come back to the court. Roe v. Wade itself could be on the table then, too.

Right-to-life advocates will argue that the purpose of the Texas law — to stop abortions — justifies the means. But does it? Are we to become a nation of spies and citizen police? Is that a land of freedom? What are the limits of this tactic? Could it be used to undermine voting, free speech or other rights? And at what point does legal power embolden culture warriors enough to use violence and other illegal means?

Justice Sonia Sotomayor said it like this: “In effect, the Texas Legislature has deputized the State’s citizens as bounty hunters, offering them cash prizes for civilly prosecuting their neighbors’ medical procedures.”

Right-to-lifers should heed an old saying: “Be careful about what you ask for, you might get it.”

Abortion, of course, will always be a fraught issue, in that it pits competing rights and deeply held religious, ethical and political views against one another and leaves little room for compromise. It is for these reasons that lawmakers should tread lightly and not swing a bludgeon, as the Texas Legislature did.

Thankfully, the number of abortions has been declining in this nation for decades and hit a record low in 2017. From 2009 to 2018, the number, rate, and ratio of reported abortions decreased 22%, 24%, and 16%, respectively, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In 2018, 619,591 legal induced abortions were reported to the CDC from 49 reporting areas. (Interesting note: That’s fewer than the number of Americans killed by COIVD-19, which now totals about 650,000.)

Research by the Guttmacher Institute found the U.S. abortion rate first fell below 1973 levels in 2012, and it has since fallen further, reaching 13.5 abortions per 1,000 women 14 to 55 years old in 2017. Guttmacher cites several reasons for the decline, such as a reduction in pregnancies and the closings of some abortion clinics.

What we truly need to work on are ways to continue reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies through better counseling, sex education, contraceptive availability and programs to help and support young mothers so they chose life instead of abortion — programs Republicans often oppose. The Texas legislation will just chase women out of state or into secretive and perhaps dangerous alternatives.

As former President Bill Clinton said: We need to make sure that abortions are legal, safe — and rare.

Andre Stepankowsky retired in August 2020 after a 41-year career as a reporter and city editor at The Daily News. He has won or shared in many prestigious journalism awards, including the staff’s 1981 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of Mount St. Helens. His column will appear on the editorial page every other Wednesday.

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