Texas’ abortion bounty law, SB 8, put an end to virtually all abortions in the state when it took effect in September 2021. Even though it carries no criminal penalties, the threat of expensive and time-consuming civil lawsuits was enough to scare most of the state’s providers into compliance with the extreme law, which bans abortion after 6 weeks gestation. Most providers, but not all: A week after the law took effect last year, Dr. Alan Braid, an ob-gyn who’d practiced in Texas for more than 45 years, declared in a Washington Post op-ed he’d violated the ban and provided an abortion after the 6 week cut-off.
“I acted because I had a duty of care to this patient, as I do for all patients, and because she has a fundamental right to receive this care,” Braid wrote.
The op-ed was as an open invitation to sue Braid under the state’s new law, and three people took him up on the offer. Two disbarred lawyers, in Illinois and Arkansas, filed suit, and a third individual — an affiliate of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue who previously served time for conspiring to bomb an abortion clinic — went after Braid’s medical license. Only one of those efforts, the lawsuit brought by Felipe Gomez in Illinois, made it all the way to legal review.
On Thursday, the Bexar County Judge Aaron Haas threw Gomez’s case out, declaring that he has no right to sue Braid under the Texas constitution. The judge found that Gomez, a stranger to both Braid and his patient, wasn’t harmed the procedure — a requirement to sue in Texas courts. If the ruling seems obvious, that’s because it is: lawyers have been yelling about the fact that S.B. 8 was blatantly unconstitutional for more than a year, but this is the only case filed against a provider under S.B. 8 that has been resolved by a court.
Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, whose lawyers represented Braid, called the decision “a significant win against S.B. 8’s bounty-hunting scheme because the court rejected the notion that Texas can allow a person with no connection to an abortion to sue.” Rolling Stone spoke with Dr. Braid about what the ruling means for him, and for the women in Texas who still need care today.
The judge threw this case out because the man who sued you — a stranger in a different state — was not impacted by your decision to provide the abortion. That’s a big deal because it significantly narrows the scope of who is allowed to file suit under this law. What was your reaction when you heard the news?
I think any first-year law student could have made that ruling. I’m not a lawyer, but in civil cases you have to have standing: if I witness an automobile accident outside my house, and I’m not involved, nobody in my family is involved, I can’t sue one of the drivers for negligence or for damages. Because I’m not harmed. I don’t see how this should be any different. The insane legislators in Texas went along with the guy who drafted the law in the first place. Am I surprised about the ruling? No. Am I surprised that there was finally a ruling? Yeah.
It did take a surprisingly long time for a court to resolve this issue. When you wrote your op-ed last year, did you imagine it would take this long? And not only would it take so long, but the Supreme Court would allow this law to stand in the meantime?
Oh, absolutely not. Again, I’m not a lawyer. But I think that the Supreme Court had already pre-judged the abortion issue as a whole. I think they were bound and determined to overthrow Roe, and they weren’t going to let a silly little law like SB 8 get in their way. I was shocked at the result, but not surprised, given the makeup of the court. Again, any law student that paid attention their first year would understand how unconstitutional [SB 8] is. What this ruling does, is [hamper, potentially,] the ability of other legislatures to pass similar laws because now there’s precedent. Especially if [the plaintiff] appeals this ruling. I hope they do, so that even a higher court has a chance to rule on the unconstitutionality of this law.
You wrote last year that you violated SB 8 because you had a duty to care for your patient. Why did you decide to share your story?
It was important that somebody challenge that law. I guess I could have just ignored the law, and maybe or maybe not have gotten sued. But we felt like the only way to challenge the law was to announce the fact that I did that. I was hoping that it would change something. In hindsight, I think had all the providers in Texas ignored SB 8, nothing would have happened. Because I think that the people that supported this law really didn’t want to [defend] it: they knew it would be overturned. But my motivation in doing that case is the motivation I have every day: that’s my support for women’s health care and abortion is an integral part of women’s health care. I’ve always believed that.
Were you surprised that more doctors didn’t ignore the law and risk a lawsuit?
I was in a bit of a unique position. I’m not a young physician. At the time, there was also the risk of losing your medical license. It wouldn’t have been that big a deal for me, at age 78. But for some young physician in their 30s, or 40s, or 50s, to lose their license would have been pretty devastating.
When you started your career in Texas abortion was virtually outlawed; 45 years later, you’re in a similar position. When did you notice a change, as a practitioner?
In Texas, the legislature goes into session every other year. And we all expected some new TRAP law to come out of every session. So it was nothing new. But, deep down, I never ever thought that Roe would be overturned because to repeat history and expect a different outcome is insanity. I was an intern and a resident in the 1970s and I saw three young women die. And that was just me, just in one university hospital. To think that we’re moving back there, as a physician and a father of daughters and as a grandfather, is pretty scary.
I understand you had to close your San Antonio clinic this year after the Dobbs decision.
I had a clinic in Tulsa, Oklahoma, one in San Antonio. And there was a clinic in Houston that I was associated with. We’ve had to close all three of those clinics. We opened a clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico and one in Carbondale, Illinois. We saw patients right up until June 24, when the [Dobbs] ruling came down, and then we were done. I had to go out in a waiting room full of patients to tell them that we could not provide services. And that was very hard to do. Our staff strongly believed in what we were doing. It was devastating for all of us. And more so for our patients, and patients all over.
Do you think you’ll ever practice medicine in Texas again?
It would take either codifying Roe federally, or for the makeup of political power in Texas to change. I would hope someday that would happen, but I don’t see it in the near future. I’ve talked to obstetricians that still practice here in San Antonio, and they are very fearful of making a decision about some of their patients. And frankly, if one of my daughters or granddaughters were pregnant, I would tell them not to deliver their baby in Texas because I think that’s where we’re going to see maternal deaths — not with back alley abortions like we saw in the ‘60s, ‘70s, mainly because of the availability of the abortion pill.
I think we’ll see, like what happened in Ireland some years ago, where a pregnant woman, [Savita Halappanavar], had premature rupture of the membranes and became infected. She got sick and died because no one would intervene because the fetus still had a heartbeat. She would have been in the hospital three or four days, gone home, and six months later gotten pregnant again. But she’s dead, because of the abortion laws in Ireland. And we have that same situation here in Texas. And there’s because of Roe and the state law. That’s my fear. I don’t think I have much more to say, except that we need to stand up to this and it needs to change. I really don’t know how long, but it’s going to take quite a while for it to change.