The NYT published an article today (July 9) that examined a new law that allows citizens to sue abortion doctors and/or clinics that assist in helping women get an abortion. The author, Sabrina Tavernise, writes that the law “contains a legal innovation with broad implications for the American court system.” The law “deputizes” ordinary citizens and provides them with the legal means to enforce the strict anti-abortion laws, rather than rely on the state.
By now, we have at least heard of the different attempts by state governments passing anti-abortion laws. The Thomas Reuters Foundation describes the initiative as an “all-out assault” on abortion rights as “19 states have enacted 94 restrictions on abortion since January.” Emma Batha, the author of the article I cite, writes, “Abortion is one of the most divisive issues in the United States, with opponents citing religious belief to declare it immoral, while abortion rights advocates say a woman should have the right to choose on matters affecting her body.”
This is certainly true- for over a century people have used arguments on morality to govern women’s bodies. Texas, specifically, has used the citizen enforcement model before to great success. Now, I do not know if there is a historian in Greg Abbott’s pocket that he takes out anytime he needs a reference on the legal history of screwing over women, but what I do know is that there is a precedent for having citizens use the law to keep perceived immoral women in check.
In 1907, Texas legislators passed a law that made prostitution illegal in the state, but allowed the cities to rewrite charters and establish “quasi-legal” red light district- regulated and taxed/fined by the local city governments. But how do you get all those sex workers to move? Well, the answer is that the government also gave the average citizen the right to sue for injunctions.
House Bill 10 not only gave the city government the right to create red light districts, but local citizens could sue the courts for injunctions on brothels claiming that the “bawdy house” brought property values down. HB 10 also defined broadly defined “bawdy house” as “one kept for prostitution or where prostitutes are permitted to resort or reside for the purpose of plying their vocation.” A disorderly house is any assignation house or any theater, playhouse or house where spirituous, vinous, or malt liquors are kept for sale, and prostitutes, lewd women, or women of bad reputation for chastity are employed.”
Well, now that is a broad swath of places, right?- brothels, dance halls, theaters, and saloons. All places where the middle-class (mostly white) public argued only the “bad girls” hung out. Houston, TX, was one of the first cities to put this plan into action. The central business district butted up next to “Happy Hollow,” the vice district located near Louisiana and Milam Streets. So, local businessmen and other citizens sued for injunctions to have these women–and yes the law specifically targeted women–moved to another location. Mostly because the businessmen wanted to take over the rest of downtown near Buffalo Bayou to expand business and trade.
Of course, the city moved the red light district a few blocks over to Freedman’s Town in the Fourth Ward. The white local officials confiscated land near San Felipe and the Buffalo Bayou, despite the protests of the Black citizens who did not want the vice district in their segregated part of town. But their arguments did not work. Houston erected “The Reservation” in 1908 in the Black section of town, fulfilled all the injunctions of white citizens against “immoral women,” and once again used a socially constructed idea of morality to control women- mostly immigrant, poor, and some Black and Brown.
While I am not comparing abortion to sex work, it is worth examining the ways governments have historically enacted laws that targeted women. Also, the 1907 Texas law provides, if not a precedent, then some context to how the state government places ownership, power, and enforcement of the laws into the hands of citizens it deem “moral.” Whether it’s women who are sex workers or abortion seekers, conservative Texas lawmakers will continue to appeal to their constituents by giving them state backed power.