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Abortion ‘Trafficking’ Laws, Travel Bans, Medication Crackdowns: How the GOP is Criminalizing Abortion Post-Dobbs

Multiple states have created a new crime called “abortion trafficking,” which makes it illegal for adults to transport minors to get abortions without parental consent. Others are trying to restrict abortion medications or out-of-state travel.

A woman stands at an abortion-rights protest holding a sign that reads "abortion is healthcare."
Fibonacci Blue via Flickr

Alabama’s top law enforcement official wants to prosecute organizations that provide mutual aid to people seeking abortions. Louisiana made abortion medication a controlled substance alongside drugs like Xanax or Valium. After Idaho lawmakers created a new crime of “abortion trafficking” last year, legislators in at least five states introduced copycat bills. And thirteen Texas municipalities have made it illegal to transport people through their jurisdictions to get an abortion.

Across the country, lawmakers are testing the limits of what they can outlaw to prevent people from getting abortions. Police and prosecutors criminalized people for their pregnancy outcomes while Roe v Wade was in place. But lawmakers have redoubled those efforts since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe in 2022.

In recent weeks, the Supreme Court dismissed two abortion cases for procedural reasons without ruling on the merits of either case. On June 13, the Supreme Court dismissed a case that would have limited access to mifepristone, one of the two drugs used for medication abortions. Other legal challenges to medication abortion are already underway

The other case involved the Biden administration’s challenge of Idaho’s strict abortion ban, which only allows doctors to administer abortion care in limited instances of rape or incest or to prevent the death of a pregnant person. The ban has forced hospitals to airlift people experiencing severe pregnancy complications out-of-state.

The federal government said the ban violates the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA), a federal law that requires most hospitals to give patients experiencing medical emergencies stabilizing care. On June 27, the Court sent the case back to an appeals court, allowing emergency abortions in Idaho for now, but made no broader ruling on whether pregnant people have a right to emergency abortions.

The case put fetal personhood—the anti-abortion movement’s notion that fertilized eggs, embryos, and fetuses have the same legal rights as people—before the Supreme Court. The theory carries dire consequences for people who can become pregnant. When embryos and fetuses have the same rights as people, ending a pregnancy or discarding fertilized eggs created through in vitro fertilization could be considered murder. Should the Supreme Court recognize fetal rights, it would mean an enormous expansion of the criminal legal system. In their dissents last week, conservative justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Clarence Thomas signaled an interest in fetal personhood.

But those Supreme Court cases are far from the only attempts Republicans have made to restrict abortion. Here is a rundown of the ways state lawmakers have attempted to expand the criminal legal system to crack down on abortion this past year.

Alabama: Attempted to criminalize mutual aid.

Status: Currently being litigated.

Shortly after Roe fell, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall said he would prosecute abortion funds for helping people end pregnancies in other states. Abortion rights groups, including the Alabama-focused Yellowhammer Fund, filed lawsuits against Marshall last year. Alabama bans almost all abortions. The Yellowhammer Fund argues that Marshall’s comments show he wants to criminalize free speech and interstate travel.

Marshall contended in court that he can prosecute people for helping others get abortions out-of-state because it would amount to a “criminal conspiracy” to commit conduct elsewhere that is illegal in Alabama. He further argued that “speech used to conduct a crime” is not protected and asked the judge to dismiss the lawsuit. 

In November, the U.S. Department of Justice weighed in on the case. In a court filing, DOJ attorneys argued that Alabama cannot use conspiracy laws in such a manner.

In May 2024, a federal judge denied Marshall’s request to dismiss the case, which is still open. The Yellowhammer Fund wants the court to ban Marshall from prosecuting abortion funds and allow reproductive justice organizations to resume helping people obtain legal abortions in other states.

Separately, in March, Republican State Representative Mark Gidley introduced a bill that would make it a misdemeanor—punishable by up to one year of incarceration—to help minors obtain abortions without parental consent. The bill was not voted on before the legislative session ended. 

Also this year, Alabama’s Supreme Court ruled that frozen embryos are “extrauterine children” under the state’s Wrongful Death of a Minor Act—a decision that opened fertility clinics to wrongful death lawsuits. Fertility clinics across the state then paused their services. In response, the state legislature passed a law to protect fertility providers from civil or criminal penalties for destroying embryos.

Texas: Enacted travel bans.

Status: More than a dozen municipalities have enacted travel bans.

At least thirteen cities and counties in Texas have made it illegal to transport anyone through their municipalities to get an abortion. The bans seek to prevent people from traveling out of Texas, where virtually all abortions are prohibited, to obtain an abortion in another place where it is legal. Like Texas’s six-week abortion ban, private citizens enforce the travel restrictions by filing lawsuits against others.

Louisiana: Made abortion medication a controlled substance.

Status: Signed into law by Louisiana Governor Jeff Landry. The law goes into effect Oct. 1, 2024.

Republican State Senator Thomas Pressly introduced a bill that classifies mifepristone and misoprostol, two medications commonly used to induce abortions, as Schedule IV controlled substances. Other Schedule IV substances include drugs such as Xanax and Valium. In Louisiana, possession of controlled substances without a prescription is illegal and is punishable by one to five years in prison—with or without hard labor—and a $5,000 fine. Pregnant people who possess mifepristone and misoprostol for their own consumption are exempt under the law, but people who assist them are not. Louisiana bans abortions in almost all circumstances.

Idaho: Created a new crime, “abortion trafficking.”

Status: Currently being litigated.

Last year, Idaho passed a so-called “abortion trafficking” law that makes it illegal for adults to “recruit, harbor, or transport” minors to get abortions without parental consent. The law creates a new crime of “abortion trafficking,” which is punishable by a minimum of two to five years in state prison. Idaho already bans virtually all abortions. Anyone who performs an abortion can be sentenced to five years in prison.

In July, advocacy organizations and an attorney who represents sexual assault victims filed a lawsuit over the ban, contending that the law is unconstitutionally vague and violates their rights to free speech and interstate travel. 

In November, a federal judge temporarily blocked the law from being enforced while the lawsuit is underway. Idaho Attorney General Raúl Labrador has tried to dismiss the case. Judge Debora Grasham rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that the law infringes upon their right to interstate travel. But Grisham otherwise allowed the case to move forward and rejected Labrador’s attempts to throw the lawsuit out.

“The state can, and Idaho does, criminalize certain conduct occurring within its own borders such as abortion, kidnapping, and human trafficking,” Grasham wrote. “What the state cannot do is craft a statute muzzling the speech and expressive activities of a particular viewpoint with which the state disagrees under the guise of parental rights.”

Labrador has since challenged the injunction blocking the “abortion trafficking” law from being enforced. In May 2024, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments for and against enforcing the ban. The judges have not yet issued a ruling.

Oklahoma: Attempted to create a new crime, “abortion trafficking.”

Status: Died in the Senate.

Republican State Representatives Denise Crosswhite Hader and Jim Olsen introduced their version of Idaho’s “abortion trafficking” law. Republican State Senator Nathan Dahm also introduced a different “abortion trafficking” bill in the state senate. The Senate bill, nearly identical to Idaho’s, was referred to a committee but did not move further before the legislative session ended. 

But the proposed House bill went even further than what Idaho enacted. The legislation would have made “trafficking” abortion medication a felony punishable by up to a $100,000 fine and/or 10 years in prison. The bill said that anyone who delivers, possesses, offers, or advertises abortion medication “commits trafficking in an abortion-inducing drug and is guilty of a felony.” Pharmacists and manufacturers operating lawfully would be exempt.

The bill passed in the House in March, but did not have a hearing in the Senate before the legislative session ended in May. Oklahoma bans nearly all abortions.

Tennessee: Created a new crime, “abortion trafficking.”

Status: Signed into law by Tennessee Governor Bill Lee. The law goes into effect July 1, 2024.

Republican State Representative Jason Zachary introduced a bill creating an “abortion trafficking” statute, which makes it a crime for adults to “recruit, harbor, or transport a pregnant unemancipated minor” to obtain an abortion without the consent of a legal guardian. “Abortion trafficking” is a misdemeanor that carries a potential one-year prison sentence. The bill passed in April 2024 and has since been signed into law by Tennessee’s governor. 

On June 24, a Tennessee lawmaker and an abortion rights advocate filed a lawsuit challenging the “abortion trafficking” law. Like the lawsuit that successfully paused Idaho’s “abortion trafficking” law, the Tennessee suit alleges the law is unconstitutionally vague and violates their right to free speech.

Tennessee is the second state to pass the new crime of “abortion trafficking” into law. Tennessee bans almost all abortions.

Mississippi: Attempted to create a new crime, “abortion trafficking.”

Status: Died in committee.

Republican State Representative Dan Eubanks introduced a bill to “create the crime of abortion trafficking,” a felony punishable by up to a $10,000 fine and/or two to five years in prison.

The bill did not move forward. Mississippi bans almost all abortions.

Kansas: Created a new felony, “abortion coercion.”

Status: Kansas Governor Laura Kelly vetoed the bill in April, but the state legislature overrode the veto. The law goes into effect July 1, 2024.

Kansas lawmakers passed a bill that will “create the crime of coercion to obtain an abortion.” The law makes it a felony to “coerce” someone to get an abortion against their will. 

The bill defines coercion as harming or threatening to harm or restrain someone, abusing or threatening to abuse the legal system (e.g., threats of arrest or deportation), facilitating or controlling someone’s access to medication, or financial abuse. The law also defines “unborn child” as “a living individual organism of the species Homo Sapiens, in utero, at any stage of gestation from fertilization to birth.”

The law makes coercing someone to get an abortion punishable by 30 days to one year in prison and a $500 to $5,000 fine. The penalties increase if the coercion is committed by the father or against someone who is under 18. If the coercion occurs alongside other crimes, including “electronic solicitation,” the sentence increases to 25 years.

Abortion is legal in Kansas up to 22 weeks.

Indiana: Attempted to outlaw possession of abortion medication and ban mutual aid.

Status: Introduced but did not get a hearing before the end of the legislative session. 

Republican State Senator Michael Young introduced a bill that would have made prescribing or possessing abortion medication a misdemeanor on the first offense and a felony on any subsequent offenses. The bill would also have prohibited nonprofits such as abortion funds from providing or offering financial assistance for abortions. 

Indiana bans virtually all abortions.