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A New Texas Abortion Law Highlights The Dangers of Citizen Policing

The law effectively legitimizes citizen policing of pregnancy and abortion, which have previously been policed primarily by the government and abusive partners.

CW: lynching, anti-Black violence, miscarriage, feticide 

By Kylie Cheung 

A Texas abortion ban signed into law earlier this year became one of dozens of disastrous, dehumanizing abortion bills in the state, and could take effect in just over a month pending the outcome of an ongoing legal battle. But this abortion ban, which prohibits abortion care after six weeks of pregnancy, isn’t like all the others, standing out from the hundreds of restrictions that have been passed in the last few years. 

Not only does it ban abortion, but it also gives any citizen, even outside of Texas, legal authority to sue people who have, provide, or help someone have an abortion. Victims of these lawsuits, which promise those who file lawsuits at least $10,000, could range from abortion patients and providers, to Uber drivers who take someone to an abortion clinic, or abortion funds who help someone pay for care. 

The law effectively legitimizes citizen policing of pregnancy and abortion, which have previously been policed primarily by the government and abusive partners. This is especially dangerous for people of color, who comprise the majority of those who have abortion care, placing them under even more severe threat of surveillance, criminalization, as well as economic consequences if they are forced pay those who sue them. 

Citizen policing, or “community policing,” has sometimes been offered as a progressive alternative to policing. Neighborhood watch programs or programs to make police departments comprise members of the communities they serve are often pitched as being somehow less violent than ordinary policing. But the frequent, well-documented cases of white women calling police on Black people, or George Zimmerman’s 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin while patrolling his neighborhood, show this model is effectively just as dangerous. 

Even prior to these jarring, culturally well-known examples of people exacting white supremacist violence upon their community members, citizen policing lay at the heart of the white supremacist lynchings and terror attacks targeting Black Americans in the Reconstruction era and much of the 20th century. To this day, the violently racist, American tradition of hunting and killing Black Americans for imagined “crimes,” or, in the case of Ahmaud Arbery, jogging in a neighborhood they aren’t perceived as belonging in, has continued. It’s impossible to call lynching a relic of the past when Black people are killed by police officers over routine traffic stops.

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Citizen policing is inseparable from the history of lynching and racial terror targeting Black Americans, often presumably, to “protect” the honor of white women. Today, Texas’ law could inspire a similar sort of racial terror and violence, this time to protect the honor of fetuses. The law serves as the cumulation of decades of anti-abortion efforts to humanize fetuses at the expense of pregnant people. In particular, pregnant people of color have never been fully seen as human beings, but rather, as one Republican state lawmaker in Oklahoma put it when he introduced a law requiring the father of the fetus’ consent for someone to have an abortion, calling pregnant people “hosts.” 

Prior to Texas’ latest, greatest abortion ban, the reproductive outcomes or decisions of people of color have often been policed by actual law enforcement systems. In 2019, Marshae Jones, a Black woman from Alabama, was jailed and at one point faced criminal charges for manslaughter for losing her pregnancy after being shot in the stomach. Before Jones, in Wisconsin, Keysheonna Reed faced charges for two counts of abuse of a corpse, for burying the fetuses of her stillborn twins. Purvi Patel, an Indian American woman, faced prison time in 2015 for allegedly using medication abortion, paradoxically charged with both feticide and child abuse. And on top of these stories and those of other people of color, just last month, one Alabama woman now faces felony charges for trying to refill a prescription for painkillers for her back while pregnant. 

Laws and policies designed on the surface to protect pregnant people from domestic violence, like feticide laws that would charge someone who killed a pregnant person with the killing of their fetus as well, have since been weaponized to create a culture of surveillance and criminalization against pregnant people if they’re perceived as “harming” their fetus. Long before Patel’s case, and the numerous cases of disproportionately pregnant people of color facing criminal charges for miscarriage or self-induced abortions, police were using the racist War on Drugs to police and jail Black pregnant women struggling or suspected to be struggling with substance use. 

Despite the relative failure of Roe v. Wade to ensure the right to abortion for all, if the precedent were overturned, even miscarriage would be looked upon with criminal suspicion, since medication abortion induces a miscarriage. In the state of Texas, if the ban successfully takes effect, nosy neighbors or coworkers could easily sue someone for losing even a wanted pregnancy, or the doctor who offers them care, and potentially win at least $10,000 from doing so. 

The policing of pregnancy outcomes, whether by the state, or by citizen bigots who have been deputized by equally bigoted government officials, ultimately reduces pregnant people to objects, incubators to be watched and surveilled as if their pregnancies are state or, in Texas, community-owned. Even more alarming is the long history of Texas serving as ground zero for dangerous and innovative anti-abortion laws, which are almost immediately picked up and enacted by other state legislatures. Whether or not Texas’ law takes effect, we’ll soon see it introduced in another state, and then another, until the racist tradition of citizen policing spreads widely, endangering pregnant people of color across the country.

Kylie Cheung is an author and writer on reproductive justice, survivor justice, and health care disparities in communities of color. You can follow her work on Twitter @kylietcheung and kyliecheung.journoportfolio.com.

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