A group of conservative Texas legislators on July 7 sent a letter to Dallas law firm Sidley Austin threatening to file future legislation to outlaw the firm’s ability to cover the cost of abortions and reproductive health travel costs for its employees.
The letter was signed by 11 legislators in the Texas Freedom Caucus, including North Texas state Reps. Matt Krause, whose District 93 includes portions of Fort Worth, Arlington, and northern Tarrant County; Matt Shaheen, of District 66 in Plano; and Brian Harrison, who represents Waxahachie, Ennis, and Midlothian in District 10.
It is addressed to North Texas lawyer Yvette Ostolaza, who chairs the firm’s management committee and effectively functions as its CEO. Sidley Austin is one of the largest firms in the country and is one of several large companies that has promised to pay for its employees’ reproductive health costs following the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade and the state of Texas’ restrictive abortion law.
“It also appears that Sidley has been complicit in illegal abortions that were performed in Texas before and after the Supreme Court’s ruling… We are writing to inform you of the consequences that you and your colleagues will face for these actions,” the letter says.
The 11 legislators would need to generate enough support for the bill to pass out of committee and then be considered and approved by the full House and Senate before it would end up on the governor’s desk for his signature.
Nevertheless, the letter threatens legislation that would make it illegal for companies to pay for employee costs associated with reproductive health support. The letter suggests that an employer would be prohibited from paying for elective abortions or reimbursing abortion-related expenses, regardless of whether the abortion occurs in a state where the procedure is legal. It would make such action a felony.
In addition, the legislators vow to allow private citizens to sue anyone who pays for an elective abortion on behalf of a Texas resident or reimburses their travel costs. Finally, it would require the State Bar of Texas to disbar any lawyer who “furnishes the means for procuring an abortion knowing the purpose intended.”
The caucus threatens to extend the jurisdiction of local district attorneys, allowing DAs in outside counties to prosecute abortion cases whether the residing DA chooses to indict or not.
Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot has joined many of the state’s large, urban DAs in refusing to prosecute women seeking abortions in Dallas County. State Rep. Briscoe Cain, of Deer Park, has already sent a similar letter to Travis County District Attorney José Garza. Garza told the Texas Tribune, “All I can say is that the courts and the state constitution have been very clear that elected district attorneys have sole criminal jurisdictions in their community.”
The letter also floats the possibility that Sidley may have already violated the Texas Heartbeat Act, the legislation passed last session that outlaws abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, even in the case of rape or incest. The group alleges that higher-ups at Sidley Austin could be prosecuted if the firm paid for an abortion or abortion-related travel, including if an employee took abortion-inducing drugs that had been procured out of state. The letter says that litigation is being prepared to determine who paid for such treatment.
Though the letter is addressed to Sidley Austin, it is unclear whether the caucus has targeted other corporations offering similar benefits to their employees. Texas’ largest firm, Houston-based Vincent and Elkins, also pledged to cover its employees’ abortion-related expenses.
These 11 legislators will also have to bat away the business community; about a quarter of the country’s largest firms have made similar promises to pay for their employees’ travel and abortion-related expenses if they reside in states where the procedure is illegal. In 2015, pushback from large businesses helped kill legislation that attempted to regulate bathroom use for transgender Texans in public buildings.
It isn’t the first time these conservative legislators have threatened CEOs operating in Texas. In May, Cain wrote to Lyft CEO Logan Green, who pledged on Twitter that the company would cover the cost of abortions for employees in Texas and Oklahoma. “The state of Texas will take swift and decisive action if you do not immediately rescind your recently announced policy to pay for the travel expenses of women who abort their unborn children,” the letter reads.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has also vowed to prosecute companies that cover these costs.
Last week’s letter demands that Ostolaza and her colleagues preserve all paperwork connected to funding abortions and abortion-related travel. “Conduct yourselves accordingly,” the letter concludes.
Sidley Austin has not yet responded to our request for comment.