Attorney General Merrick Garland pledged Monday to protect abortion clinics in Texas by enforcing a federal law that prohibits making threats against patients seeking reproductive health services and obstructing clinic entrances.
While the Justice Department continues to explore legal avenues for challenging the six-week abortion ban in Texas, Garland said in a statement that the department has reached out to US attorneys’ offices and FBI field offices in Texas and across the country.
“The department will provide support from federal law enforcement when an abortion clinic or reproductive health center is under attack,” Garland said. “We will not tolerate violence against those seeking to obtain or provide reproductive health services, physical obstruction or property damage in violation of the FACE Act.”
The FACE Act “prohibits the use or threat of force and physical obstruction that injures, intimidates, or interferes with a person seeking to obtain or provide reproductive health services,” Garland said in the statement. It also prohibits property damage of a facility providing reproductive health services.
“The department has consistently obtained criminal and civil remedies for violations of the FACE Act since it was signed into law in 1994, and it will continue to do so now,” Garland said.
The Monday statement from Garland is the most detailed look yet at what tools the Biden administration believes it has at its disposal to respond to the Texas abortion ban, which went into effect on Wednesday.
The FACE Act — which stands for the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act — has historically been used in situations where entrances to clinics are physically being blocked by anti-abortion activists. If violence is used to obstruct clinic access, the law comes with the threat of fines up to $100,000 — or more for repeat offenders — as well as the potential for prison time. Nonviolent actions in violation of the law carry potential fines up to $5,000 for the first offense and up to $25,000 for repeat offenders.
Garland’s statement said that the department will enforce the FACE Act while it “urgently explores all options to challenge Texas SB8 in order to protect the constitutional rights of women and other persons.”
The US Supreme Court last week declined a request by clinics that it step in to block the Texas law from going into effect. The five-vote conservative majority pointed to procedural reasons for why the high court wasn’t intervening at this point. The Texas law was designed specifically with the goal of making it more difficult for clinics to obtain federal court orders blocking enforcement of the law. Instead of creating criminal penalties for abortions conducted after a fetal heartbeat is detected, the Texas legislature has tasked private citizens with enforcing the law by bringing private litigation against clinics — and anyone else who assists a woman in obtaining an abortion after six weeks. A federal lawsuit that clinics brought challenging the law is now stalled in the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, and abortion rights advocates have also looked to state courts as an option for where to take the legal fight next.
Since the law went into effect, clinics across Texas have stopped offering abortions after six weeks, or have shuttered their doors altogether.
President Joe Biden previously promised a “whole of government” response to the Texas law.
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