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A Texas man sues ex-wife's friends for allegedly helping her get abortion pills

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Three women in Texas are being sued for more than $1 million each for allegedly helping another woman get abortion pills to end her pregnancy. The woman's ex-husband filed a wrongful death lawsuit in civil court in Galveston County. As NPR's Sarah McCammon reports, the case could lay the groundwork for prosecutors to bring criminal charges against people who help those seeking abortions.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: In his lawsuit, Marcus A. Silva claims that last July, three women secretly helped his now ex-wife obtain pills to self-manage her abortion. One of Silva's attorneys, Peter Breen, says it's believed to be the first such case since last summer's Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.

PETER BREEN: What we're establishing here is that individuals and, apparently, entities assisted in the unjust killing, unlawful killing of an unborn child. And so the father of that child, who had his child taken from him and never got to know that child, has a legal right to recover for the damages suffered in that act.

MCCAMMON: Silva's then-wife already had filed for divorce at the time of the abortion. According to the lawsuit, she and two of the defendants exchanged text messages in which she said she feared Silva would pressure her to stay with him if he learned about the pregnancy. In addition to monetary damages, the civil lawsuit seeks an injunction blocking the defendants from helping with abortions in the future. Breen says it may expand to include pill manufacturers, pharmacies and groups that help people seeking abortions. Breen, who's with the conservative Catholic legal group the Thomas More Society, says he believes the case also should send a message to criminal prosecutors.

BREEN: In terms of the criminal system, certainly there - you know, we're citing the murder law of the state of Texas. And so there are - obviously, you know, there are going to be other issues that arise that local prosecutors are going to need to be asked about.

MCCAMMON: Silva's lead attorney, Jonathan Mitchell, is known for helping craft the Texas abortion law known as SB 8, which allows private citizens to file civil suits against anyone who facilitates an illegal abortion in the state. This case pushes that idea further from civil court, potentially to criminal court by pointing to murder and wrongful death laws. Farah Diaz-Tello is senior counsel with the reproductive rights legal group If/When/How.

FARAH DIAZ-TELLO: I think what they're trying to do here is lay out a playbook for prosecutors. And that seems fairly transparent on the face of the papers, that they want to lay out the strategy that they want to see prosecutors using in going after not only people who support others in having abortions, but against people who have abortions themselves.

MCCAMMON: Silva says in the filing that he's not targeting his ex-wife. Abortion laws in Texas and many other states exempt people from prosecution for terminating their own pregnancies. And Cynthia Soohoo, a law professor at the City University of New York, also sees the case as part of a larger strategy by some anti-abortion groups to treat fetuses as full persons under the law.

CYNTHIA SOOHOO: That's a dangerous conceptual move - right? - because I think it's one thing for the legislature to say we think that abortion is wrong and we think abortion should be criminalized. But I think it's a huge leap to sort of say that general laws, murder laws and wrongful death statutes should be applied to abortion.

MCCAMMON: Whatever the outcome of this civil case, NYU Law professor Melissa Murray says it's likely to intimidate people seeking abortions or helping them in Texas and beyond.

MELISSA MURRAY: This lawsuit is a shot across the bow that whatever you do, we can identify you. And we can sue you. And we can possibly convince the state to not just deal with you civilly, but perhaps criminally as well.

MCCAMMON: The lawsuit also comes at a time when abortion drugs may soon become harder to get. A federal judge in Texas is expected to decide soon whether to curb access to a common abortion pill. If that happens, it would drive access to abortion even further underground.

Sarah McCammon, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAKI KING AND CHLOE ALEXANDRA THOMPSON'S "DEFAULT SHELL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.