Abortion funds and providers are seeing an uptick in 'vigilante' calls after Texas ban

Planned Parenthood South Texas has paused abortion procedures in San Antonio, Texas. It operates three out of the four facilities that provide abortion care in the city.

By Nicole Chavez, Dianne Gallagher and Jade Gordon, CNN

(CNN) -- Some clinics and groups helping fund abortion care in Texas are seeing an uptick in calls from people trying to "catch" them running afoul of the state's restrictive new ban.

"We have those people calling saying things like, 'oh but can't you slip me in' because they're wanting to find the provider who actually isn't following the law," said Jeffrey Hons, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood South Texas in San Antonio, Texas.

The new abortion law in Texas bans the procedure as early as six weeks into pregnancy and creates criminal penalties for anyone who assists people in obtaining one. In the week since the ban went into effect, clinics and abortion funds have been fighting back in court while fielding an increased number of calls. They said some callers are people scared and confused about their options and others are from people looking for grounds for civil litigation.

"I've had people come to me and ask me if they can still get abortions or they're going to go to jail," said Makayla Montoya, an abortion rights activist and founder of the Buckle Bunnies Fund. "That's a horrible thing for somebody to think in a time of crisis."

For the past week, Montoya has been dropping off packages with pregnancy tests and emergency contraceptive pills at homes around San Antonio and helping connect people with abortion funds in other states.

She says she's heard desperation and confusion in people's voices, especially from those who can't afford the 10-hour drive to New Mexico or another state to get an abortion.

"It's desperation because they're pregnant, they can't access abortion... because now they're financially screwed and they don't know what their next step is," Montoya says.

Supporters of abortion rights are pushing back against the ban on multiple fronts, including the courts and asking the Biden administration to use the muscle of the federal government.

The Supreme Court refused to block the legislation last week. But the Justice Department sued the state of Texas on Thursday, saying the ban is unconstitutional because it conflicts with "the statutory and constitutional responsibilities of the federal government."

The lawsuit, filed in a federal court in Austin, alleges that the abortion law violates the Constitution's supremacy clause, which establishes that the US Constitution and federal law generally take precedence over state laws.

Renae Eze, press secretary for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, said the state passed a law "that ensures that the life of every child with a heartbeat will be spared from the ravages of abortion," and the governor's office is confident the courts will uphold it.

"Unfortunately, President Biden and his Administration are more interested in changing the national narrative from their disastrous Afghanistan evacuation and reckless open border policies instead of protecting the innocent unborn," Eze said in a statement.

Attorney General Merrick Garland told reporters on Thursday that he would sue any other state that enacts similar laws. Earlier this week, Garland had pledged to protect abortion clinics in the state by enforcing a federal law that prohibits making threats against patients seeking reproductive health services and obstructing clinic entrances.

They are answering 'vigilante justice' calls

Planned Parenthood South Texas, which operates three out of the four facilities providing abortion care in San Antonio, has stopped offering the procedure due to the ban.

Hons, the clinics' president and CEO, said the decision was not easy and it was painful because most of the people who sought an abortion last year at those facilities were over six weeks pregnant.

Keeping abortion care going for a very small number of people who would still be eligible under the ban, he says, would put them at a high risk of lawsuits that could draw them out of business.

The Texas ban deputizes any private citizen in the country with the power to bring civil litigation, in Texas state courts, against abortion providers accused of violating the ban. It opens up clinics -- and anyone else accused of "aiding and abetting" -- to the threat of unending litigation.

Montoya says the Buckle Bunnies Fund has been receiving more fake calls and request in the past week from people "trying to catch us" breaking the law. While they have taken safety measures, Montoya thinks those calls won't be stopping anytime soon.

"I think we're going to be seeing a lot more of that because they're empowered now by the state to kind of like enact vigilante justice," Montoya said.

The ban has taken an emotional toll for the clinics' call takers, Hons said. They had to be "bearers of bad news," and act as if they were "under microscopic evaluation" when answering calls from people pretending to be patients and "trying to trick us up in a lie."

"Our contact center staff have to be so careful to find out who we're talking to, what they're asking about and provide only the information that is allowed (under the law)," Hons said.

At least two abortion funds in the state, Frontera Fund and West Fund, have temporarily stopped taking calls and text through their hotlines to restructure their operations and for the safety of callers and volunteers, they said.

Several companies have pushed back against the ban in the past week. Ridehail companies Lyft and Uber said they would cover legal fees for their drivers who are sued as a result of the new legislation. Meanwhile, GoDaddy took down a website that allowed people to post tips about possible Texas abortions.

For now, Hons said he's trying to stay positive because he hopes the ban will be overthrown in court.

"We're not about to fold our tent now so right now we stay strong. We've provided the care that we have for 83 years here, and we will keep fighting this legal fight," he said.

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