Rep. Lizzie Fletcher leads effort to protect travel for abortions

The Supreme Court’s ruling overturning Roe v. Wade earlier this month sparked uncertainty in states where old statutes on abortion, some dating back a century or more, remain on the books.

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Some Texas GOP legislators claim those old laws — revived by the Roe ruling — already do more than just ban abortion in the state, with clauses barring anyone from “furnishing” abortions as well, which they argue prohibits businesses or advocacy groups from covering a patient’s travel costs.

Many groups that helped Texans travel out of state for abortions since the state’s six-week abortion ban went into effect in September 2021 have paused their operations to review the ruling and its impact.

The Ensuring Access to Abortion Act, authored by U.S. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, a Houston Democrat, would make it clear that the freedom to travel to other states is a constitutional right, and would prohibit states from restricting travel for those seeking to obtain a lawful abortion.

“It’s really important to do this now, as we see people and this conversation moving into restricting American citizens from traveling between the states,” Fletcher said in an interview with Hearst Newspapers.

The legislation would also bar states from banning businesses or groups from assisting in that travel, something some Texas Republicans have argued state law already does as a slew of companies have offered to cover travel costs for their Texas employees who need abortions.

It’s a key part of Democrats’ response to last month’s Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, and is one of two abortion bills that House Democrats have teed up for votes this week as Republicans gear up to push further abortion restrictions in the states.

While the bill is almost certain to pass the Democratic-controlled House, it’s unclear whether it would go anywhere in the evenly divided Senate, where Republicans have blocked efforts to codify abortion access.

Threats from the right

Meanwhile, Texas Republicans have targeted businesses helping fund employee’s travel to other states to seek abortions. Corporations including Tesla, Apple and Hewlett Packard Enterprise have said they will cover costs for employees to travel for abortions.

The Texas Freedom Caucus last week sent a letter to Dallas law firm Sidley Austin LLP saying the firm was “exposing itself and each of its partners to felony criminal prosecution and disbarment” for reimbursing travel costs for employees who “leave Texas to murder their unborn children.”

It is not clear why the group thinks Texas can enforce a law restricting constitutionally protected travel rights. The Freedom Caucus chair, Rep. Mayes Middleton of Wallisville, did not respond to a request for comment.

The letter pointed to a 1925 state law that bans “furnishing the means” for an abortion. The state Supreme Court earlier this month said that Texas can enforce the law for now, though the court has not issued a final ruling on it.

The letter said the caucus also plans to push legislation next session that would prohibit any employer in Texas from paying for elective abortions or reimbursing abortion-related expenses, regardless of where the abortion occurs.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, the state’s top law enforcement official, has not yet opined on whether aiding in travel for abortion is forbidden by the 1925 ban, or by a so-called “trigger law” banning abortion outright that is set to take effect later this month.

Paxton did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

In court filings in a case defending the state’s six-week abortion ban, Paxton previously pointed to the number of Texans traveling to other states to seek abortions as evidence that the law was “stimulating” interstate commerce.

At the U.S. Supreme Court, at least one justice who voted to overturn Roe has said last month’s ruling did not give states a green light to restrict travel.

“Some of the other abortion-related legal questions raised by today’s decision are not especially difficult as a constitutional matter,” Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in his concurring opinion. “For example, may a state bar a resident of that state from traveling to another state to obtain an abortion? In my view, the answer is no based on the constitutional right to interstate travel.”

Bill forbids travel interference

Fletcher’s bill reaffirms the right to travel established by the 14th Amendment and would empower the attorney general to bring a civil action against any person who violates it. It would also create a cause of action for civil suits against those who interfere with interstate travel.

Fletcher said Texas has already served as a case study for the importance of travel for abortion, pointing to a University of Texas at Austin study that found the six-week abortion ban the state passed last year forced nearly 1,400 Texans to travel out of state for abortion care each month.

“I’m hearing from people on the ground, and from some providers at home … they said this has become a humanitarian crisis for people here who need access to reproductive health care,” she said. “You’ve reduced the options down so much and now are threatening the last option people have.”

Fletcher, a former board member at Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee with jurisdiction over interstate commerce.

Fletcher said she hopes some Republicans may support the bill, though none have signed on so far.

“It’s so fundamental that I think that they should,” Fletcher said. “I think they should recognize that if, as we’ve heard for years, that this is a decision for the states, that states shouldn’t prohibit their citizens from exercising their constitutional right to travel.”

The House is also expected to vote again on the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would codify and expand Roe. The House passed the bill last year, but it has been stuck in the Senate, where Democrats would need the support of 10 Republicans to pass it.

“We have a sacred, fundamental duty to expand freedom in America, not to roll back fundamental rights,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement. “While Republicans seek to criminalize reproductive health care nationwide, House Democrats will never relent in our fight to defend freedom for women and for every American.”

Taylor Goldenstein contributed reporting from Austin.

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