In Texas, Where Abortion Rights Began, GOP Builds New Barriers
AUSTIN, Texas — Linda Coffee was in her mid-20s and barely out of law school when she and former classmate Sarah Weddington stunned the legal establishment—and much of America—by successfully arguing Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court case that legalized abortion in 1973.
Weddington died in December, leaving Coffee as the only surviving member of the legal team that won that far-reaching victory. Now 79 and decades into a quiet retirement in the East Texas town of Mineola, Coffee anticipates being plucked from seclusion by reporters and legal scholars if the high court, as expected, reverses its Roe ruling in the coming weeks.
Because Roe’s legal roots were planted in a Dallas courtroom, Texas could be described as the starting point for a half-century of legalized abortions in America. But in the decades since the decision, Republicans have steadily toppled Democrats to take over the state’s power structure.
In recent years, Texas has produced some of the most restrictive anti-abortion laws in the country, culminating in a measure that went into effect in September. It bans abortions after six weeks of pregnancy and deputizes private citizens to sue anyone who “aids or abets” an abortion by, for example, paying for someone else to have the procedure.
Texas is one of 13 states with a so-called trigger law that would quickly outlaw abortion if Roe falls. But energized Texas Republicans are determined to go even further, readying bills for next year’s legislative session that aim to block Texans from traveling to states where abortion remains legal.
State Rep. Briscoe Cain, a Republican who is one of the leading anti-abortion rights lawmakers in the Texas House, said one goal would be to punish companies that pay for their employees’ travel out of state for abortions. Companies including Amazon, Citigroup and Levi Strauss have announced that they plan to do just that. Cain promised legislation to bar such companies from doing business with the state—and even to prohibit them from operating within it.
Earlier this month, 14 Texas House Republicans released a letter to Logan Green, the CEO of ride-sharing company Lyft, vowing “swift and decisive” action if Green followed through on his pledge, announced on Twitter, to help Texas and Oklahoma women seek abortions in other states.
“If [Roe] is overturned, I think there’ll be energy to finish cutting the head off the dragon in the legislature,” said Cain, who signed the letter.
Abortion rights advocates in Texas say they already have been living in a post-Roe world since the enactment of the six-week ban, which has forced Texas women to visit health clinics in other states to get the procedure.
“I think there’s no limit to where the Texas legislature will go next,” said former Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis, who staged a 13-hour filibuster against Republican abortion restrictions in 2013 and filed suit in April against the six-week ban. Cain, one of the House sponsors of the law, is a defendant in the suit.
Authored by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, a Republican from the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area, the Texas trigger law would impose criminal penalties on anyone who provides or attempts to provide an abortion except to save the life of the patient.
Under the law, which would take effect 30 days after a judgment reversing Roe v. Wade, anyone who tries to provide an abortion could be charged with a second-degree felony, punishable by two to 20 years in prison. Providing a successful abortion would be a first-degree felony, punishable by a minimum of five years to life in prison. The law also would impose civil penalties of $100,000 for each violation.
“We are going to stop it,” Capriglione said in a phone interview with Stateline.
Joe Pojman, a former aerospace engineer who is now executive director of Texas Alliance for Life, said the law “would completely protect unborn children from abortion beginning at conception.
“That would be the fulfillment of our dreams and goals for the last 50 years.”
But Cain and Capriglione, along with anti-abortion leaders like Pojman, emphatically dismiss the possibility of prosecuting women who get abortions, saying the criminal offenses should apply only to doctors and others who perform the procedure.
Texas’ pre-Roe abortion statute, which originated in 1854, “never even contemplated making … any penalties for the woman who has the abortion,” Capriglione said, “and my bill doesn’t either.”
Supporters of abortion rights, signaling their distrust of Republican architects of the legislation, say they worry prosecution may not stop with abortion providers or those who help others get one. They point to the recent short-lived case against a South Texas woman who was jailed on a murder charge after what was described by police as a self-induced abortion.
According to news reports, staff members at a Starr County hospital called the sheriff’s office after the woman tried to induce her own abortion. She was reportedly indicted and jailed before Starr County District Attorney Gocha Allen Ramirez dropped the charge, saying the case “is not a criminal matter.”
Dyana Limon-Mercado, executive director of Planned Parenthood Texas Votes, the organization’s political arm, said the incident underscored confusion raised by the state’s abortion laws “about what is actually” a violation and what is not.
‘A Really Bad Impact’
Coffee lives in tiny Mineola with Rebecca Hartt, her partner of 37 years, and their dogs, Deborah and Carter. In a recent phone interview, she looked back on her involvement in the case of Roe v. Wade and fretted over the effects of its potential reversal.
“I’m very concerned about it,” she said, warning of legal “chaos” as states battle over implementing new abortion laws. “They’re going to be having so much litigation. I think it’ll have a really bad impact.”
Coffee almost died last year, spending 241 days in intensive care after contracting West Nile virus from a mosquito bite. Although she has largely stayed out of the public eye, the upcoming ruling has raised her profile again. “I’ve got people calling from all over to talk to me,” she said.
She and Weddington were friends and classmates at the University of Texas Law School in the late 1960s, where their few female classmates included future U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Coffee and Weddington teamed up to begin working on Roe v. Wade shortly after graduating.
Weddington, a gifted speaker adept at oral arguments, became the best known of the two, but Coffee played an equally essential role and wrote the brief. The U.S. Supreme Court voted 7-2 to uphold their argument that women were entitled to abortions under a constitutional right to privacy.
“I was thrilled,” Coffee recalled.
The plaintiff was Norma McCorvey, who had been in trouble with the law from the time she was 10 and was seeking a then-illegal abortion for an unwanted third pregnancy. Someone referred her to Coffee and Weddington, who were seeking a plaintiff to challenge abortion bans.
For years, McCorvey was known as “Jane Roe,” but she later went public after becoming a born-again Christian and switching sides to oppose abortions, even to the point of unsuccessfully suing to overturn Roe v. Wade. She said in a 2017 documentary, however, that she had been paid by anti-abortion forces to present herself as an opponent of Roe v. Wade. She died that same year.
The defendant in the Roe v. Wade suit was Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade, who was even better known for prosecuting Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby in the killing of presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.
Senior staff at Texas health clinics and abortion funds said in recent interviews that the repeal of Roe v. Wade would further darken the trying times they’ve experienced since the state’s six-week ban went into effect.
“I’m continuously trying to figure out where our patients will need us next,” said Marva Sadler, senior director of clinical services at Whole Woman’s Health, which operates nine clinics, including four in Texas, as well as the Stigma Relief Fund.
“Where’s the best place to be in what looks like a very unfriendly atmosphere coming really soon?”
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