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Texas professors join lawsuit to punish students who have abortions

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Two professors at the University of Texas at Austin are suing to penalize students who miss class in order to receive abortion care — a startlingly audacious legal move.

Although it is, to a good extent, a publicity stunt (how will the professors know a student has had an abortion?), this is still part of an overarching challenge to federal protections in the Lone State State. Texas bans nearly all abortions, with no exceptions for rape or incest. A doctor convicted of providing an illegal abortion can face up to 99 years in prison, a $100,000 fine and revocation of the medical license. Physicians are fearful of being prosecuted for providing abortion care even in cases of medical emergencies where the pregnant person’s life is critically endangered — the only slim exception in the ban. That danger will continue because last week, the state Supreme Court callously rejected claims brought by 20 women who were denied abortions despite dire complications.

All of these limitations are not enough for philosophy Professor Daniel Bonevac and business and finance Professor John Hatfield. These professors are seeking to violate federal privacy mandates so they can punish students who have abortions. They recently joined a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education, hoping to bypass the new Title IX policies that will be put into effect Aug. 1. These policies primarily expand protections for students who are LGBTQ-plus or pregnant. Bonevac and Hatfield claim in the federal court filing that Title IX policies, in which the federal government protects against sexual or gender-based discrimination in education, are “flawed from top to bottom — no aspect of it can be salvaged” and that they overstep Texas’ “sovereign interest.”

The court filing conjectures that the new Title IX policies will undermine the assumed right of schools to punish students who miss class to get an abortion, infringing on the state’s abortion prohibitions. The filing reads: “Plaintiffs Hatfield and Bonevac do not intend to accommodate student absences from class to obtain abortions — including illegal abortions and purely elective abortions that are not medically required.” Nor will the plaintiffs “hire a teaching assistant who has violated the abortion laws of Texas or the federal-law prohibitions on … abortion pills.”

The legal complaint announces that the professors have “no intention of complying with the Biden administration’s recently announced Title IX edict, which has nothing to do with ‘sex’ discrimination and represents nothing more than an attempt to force every educator in the United States to conform to a highly contentious interpretation of gender ideology and abortion rights.” Bonevac and Hatfield add that they will not use any “they” pronouns for students, because they “will not violate the rules of grammar or make a fool of [themselves] to accommodate a student’s delusional beliefs,” or allow their teaching assistants to “engage in cross-dressing.” They refer to women who receive abortions as “criminals.”

In the inflammatory legal complaint, the professors argue that they “will not accommodate a purely elective abortion that serves only to kill an unborn child that was conceived through an act of voluntary and consensual sexual intercourse.” This, of course, brings into question how the professors will know a pregnancy came from “consensual sexual intercourse.” Will students who have been raped be forced to disclose their trauma to their professor, who will then make his own decision on whether or not he believes them? Texas does not have an exception for rape in its abortion ban, so would nonconsensual acts even contribute to the professors’ decision-making?

Bonevac and Hatfield go on: “Pregnancy is not a disease, and elective abortions are not ‘health care’ or ‘medical treatment’ of any sort. They are purely elective procedures, and I will not accommodate an act of violence against the most vulnerable and defenseless members of the human family.” The professors lament the Title IX requirement that schools treat abortions as “any other temporary medical condition.”

The lawsuit was initially filed in April by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Christian nationalist, and America First Legal, a legal group led by senior members of the Trump administration that is working to take action against “woke companies” and the “radical left.” The original lawsuit primarily focused on gender issues, such as pronoun usage and gender-affirming bathrooms in schools. Stephen Miller, America First Legal’s president, ridiculously alleges that the new Title IX policies would “force girls in every public school in America to share restrooms, locker rooms and private facilities with men.” Abortion opposition was added in an amended complaint after the professors signed onto the lawsuit.

Despite the professors having their faculty positions based in Austin, their lawsuit was filed 486 miles away in Amarillo. This is undoubtedly because the Trump-appointed U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, the lone federal judge in the Amarillo area, will preside over the case. Kacsmaryk was likewise judge-shopped in the mifepristone challenge, which is now before the U.S. Supreme Court. He’s a Christian nationalist with a long-documented history of working against the so-called evils of “sexual revolutionaries,” including abortion.

The bottom line is that these professors are doing everything in their power to outright punish students who seek abortion care —  and imposing their moral and religious values in the process.

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CAITLIN BERRAY is the Governmental Affairs Coordinator for the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Caitlin graduated from Baylor University with a B.A. in International Studies and a minor in Political Science in December 2021. After graduation, Caitlin interned with various nonprofits dedicated to progressive U.S. politics and international development. Joining FFRF in October 2022, Caitlin first worked as FFRF’s Governmental Affairs Intern.

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