The U.S. House of Representatives last week passed the Ensuring Access to Abortion Act. The law would have protected the ability to travel from states where abortion is banned to states where it remains legal to receive care. Senate Republicans, led by James Lankford of Oklahoma, have already blocked the measure, characterizing it a solution in need of a problem. “No state has banned interstate travel for adult women seeking to obtain an abortion,” Lankford said. “This seems to be just trying to inflame, to raise the what-ifs.”
Democrats on the ground in Texas, though, are wise to this tactic. It’s one they’ve seen before, and they are urging outsiders and national Democrats to pay attention: The effort to restrict a woman’s right to travel across state lines is already underway.
One week before Lankford made those comments, Yvette Ostolaza, a Dallas-based corporate litigator and the head of the white-shoe law firm Sidley Austin LLP, received a letter from a handful of elected officials in Texas.
“It has come to our attention that Sidley Austin has decided to reimburse the travel costs of employees who leave Texas to murder their unborn children,” the letter, signed by eleven Republicans in the Texas House of Representatives, read. It went on to threaten the law firm — one of the country’s largest — with criminal prosecution and the disbarment of its partners, among other penalties, over its pledge to reimburse “abortion-related travel and, if necessary, related legal-defense expenses” for its employees.
In the letter, Republicans went on to detail their plans to introduce “legislation next session that will impose additional civil and criminal sanctions on law firms that pay for abortions or abortion travel.”
Dozens of the nation’s top law firms, as well as many of its biggest corporations — Amazon, Microsoft, Starbucks, Disney, Tesla, JP Morgan Chase, to name a few — have publicly promised to help employees forced to travel from states where abortion has been banned to recieve medical care. It’s unclear why the Republicans singled out Sidley Austin, and the letter’s author, Mayes Middleton, chair of the Texas Freedom Caucus, did not respond to a request for comment. (Representatives for Sidley declined to comment as well.)
What is clear, Rep. Lizzie Fletcher (D-Texas) tells Rolling Stone, is the letter’s intent: “It is a threat to every employer in Texas that has a similar policy.”
Fletcher was the author of the law Lankford blocked. “It’s really disingenuous,” she says of Republican’s logic. “We know that these efforts are underway.” This year in Missouri, a lawmaker already proposed a law like the one floated by the Texas Republicans in their letter. The archconservative Thomas More Society, one of several anti-abortion groups that write template laws for Republican state legislators, is reportedly drafting on model legislation that would allow private citizens to sue anyone who helps a resident of a state terminate a pregnancy outside of that state.
“The idea that these threats aren’t being made — that this isn’t happening — is just not credible on its face,” Fletcher says.
The active efforts to restrict and criminalize interstate travel are made even more unsettling by national Republicans’ reluctance to acknowledge them. “Everyone should affirm the constitutional right to travel. This is something that is as old as our country’s Articles of Confederation. The Supreme Court has [weighed in on] this many, many times. The idea that people on the other side of the aisle — the Republicans in the Senate and others — can’t protect the right to travel for all citizens?” Fletcher says. “It’s really disturbing.”
Democratic state Rep. James Talarico, who works in the Texas State House alongside the letter’s authors, is urging Democrats in Washington to take the threats seriously.
“As the Republican Party spirals toward fascism, these ideas that are on the fringe are moving to the center of their party. And I’m seeing that on issue after issue,” Talarico tells Rolling Stone. He cited the legislature’s approval last year of permitless carry — the notion that anyone can carry a gun without a license or training — as evidence. When the idea was first floated, Talarico says, “It was seen as outrageous and fringe. Two years later, it’s the law of the land here in Texas. People need to understand how some of these extreme voices are taking over the Republican Party influencing policy. What seems fringe today is becoming mainstream in the Republican party tomorrow.”
“It’s really easy to slip into denial that this is happening around us,” he adds.
This weekend, at the Democratic Convention in Texas, Talarico publicly admonished President Biden and Democratic leaders for their response in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overrule Roe. “The Democratic Party is the only thing standing between this country and fascism,” Talarico said on stage in Dallas. “Yet the best our national party leaders can muster is spineless talking points and soulless fundraising emails.”
Talarico, who flipped a Republican district outside of Austin in 2018, urged Democratic leaders to take bolder action to protect reproductive rights, including by declaring a public health emergency, leasing federal property to abortion providers, and impeaching justices who lied under oath.
At a minimum, Talarico says, the Democratic Party needs to name the threat it is currently facing. “Restricting a citizen’s ability to travel freely throughout the United States is authoritarianism, it is fascism. We’re not talking about tax policy. We’re not talking about budget size. We’re talking about fundamental freedoms: the freedom to choose, to vote, freedom to marry, freedom to learn, freedom to teach, freedom to travel — these are foundational freedoms that are at stake. This is not a conservative view of a budget versus a progressive view of budget — we’re way beyond that.”