Texas professors sue to fail students who seek abortions

Men are using abortion bans to control and abuse women in their lives for "consensual sexual intercourse"

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published June 3, 2024 5:45AM (EDT)

Ken Paxton | University of Texas at Austin (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Ken Paxton | University of Texas at Austin (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

A pair of Texas professors figured out that their female students have sex and, boy, they do not like it. So now the philosophy professor and finance professor are suing for the right to punish their students who, outside of class, have abortions.

"Pregnancy is not a disease, and elective abortions are not 'health care,'" University of Texas at Austin professor Daniel Bonevac sneers in a federal court filing with professor John Hatfield. Instead, Bonevac writes, because pregnancy is the result of "voluntary and consensual sexual intercourse," students should not be allowed time off to get abortions. If the students disobey and miss class for abortion care, the filing continues, the professors should be allowed to flunk students. Additionally, Bonevac asserts that he has a right to refuse to employ a teaching assistant who has had an abortion, calling such women "criminals."

The sexual hang-ups of abortion opponents are rarely far from the surface, but even by those low standards, the unjustified male grievance on display in this new Texas lawsuit is a doozy. At issue are federal regulations, called Title IX, first signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1972. They currently bar publicly funded schools from discriminating on the basis of sex or gender. This means that schools cannot penalize students for health care based on sex. As a male student would be granted leave if he had to travel for surgery, so must a female student, the federal statute requires. The two men argue that granting students an excused absence in such cases violates their First Amendment rights.

Even though the plaintiffs suing for the right to flunk female students for abortion include boilerplate arguments in which they feign concern that abortion is "killing," the legal filing makes it clear that what really outrages Bonevac and Hatfield is that Title IX prevents them from controlling the private lives of students. Along with their anger about abortion, they  grouse about not being allowed to punish students "for being homosexual or transgender." They also argue they should be able to penalize teaching assistants for "cross-dressing," by which they appear to mean allowing trans women to wear skirts.

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As Jessica Valenti at Abortion, Every Day wrote, the language of the legal complaint is "downright petulant." The picture painted is of two men obsessed with controlling student lives based on what they're packing inside their underwear. It should be common sense that college students should be graded on their performance in class, not whether or not their professor resents their sex life or sexual identity. Alas, because the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and Texas banned abortion, it's created a pretext for every busybody who wants to spend less time grading papers and more time working himself into an angry froth over the imagined sexual exploits of his students. 

Even though Bonevac and Hatfield work in Austin, Texas, they filed their lawsuit 486 miles away in Amarillo, Texas. The reason for this is not mysterious: Donald Trump-appointed judge Matthew Kacsmaryk. The right-wing judge has a long and frankly unhinged history of screeching at top volume about the evils of "sexual revolutionaries." (Yes, that does sound like a compliment, but he doesn't mean it as such.) It takes very little to draw Kacsmaryk's sexualized condemnation. Premarital sex, for instance, makes one a "sexual revolutionary." Using contraception within marriage also makes one an irredeemable pervert. In his legal writings, Kacsmaryk is very clear that sex is only for procreation within marriage, and anything outside of that should draw legal sanction. He has not weighed in on whether there should be restrictions on what sexual positions are legally permissible within the procreation-only marital sex, but give him time. 

Unfortunately, the Dobbs decision, which ended abortion rights, didn't just empower professors who are overly preoccupied with the sex lives of undergraduates. Texas has swiftly turned into a case study in how abortion bans aren't really about "life" at all, but about giving abusive misogynists a whole new set of tools to use in controlling women. As Melissa Gira Grant at the New Republic wrote earlier this month, domestic "[a]busers have noticed and taken advantage" of how abortion bans mean the "legal system itself" is now "an instrument of abuse." Operators at domestic violence hotlines have seen a surge in calls from victims whose abusers who "use state anti-abortion laws to intimidate and threaten partners" who have had or are considering an abortion. 

One would think the Republicans who wrote the abortion bans might want to distance themselves from terrible men using the laws as leverage to force women into sexual relationships. Instead, Republicans are embracing the cause of men who believe coercion is an acceptable substitute for romance. Jonathan Mitchell, the former Texas solicitor general who wrote one of the two major Texas abortion bans, has been representing men who don't even bother to hide that they are motivated by a belief that women simply don't have a right to say no to them. 

We've covered the first case, of Marcus Silva, extensively at Salon. Court filings accuse Silva of extensive abuse of his ex-wife, including getting drunk at her work party and calling her misogynist names in front of colleagues. Her friends document how he reportedly knew his ex-wife was going to abort a pregnancy, but didn't try to stop her. Instead, he wanted to use her abortion as leverage. Text messages show him threatening to turn her and her friends into the law after her abortion unless she returned to do his laundry and have sex with him. Mitchell is representing Silva in a lawsuit against his ex-wife's friends for "aiding and abetting" an abortion that made it easier for her to leave him. 

Turns out Mitchell is quickly creating a cottage industry of using the Texas law to help men harass ex-girlfriends. As the Texas Tribune reported earlier this month, Mitchell is representing two more men who want to use legal action to punish their ex-girlfriends for traveling out of state to get a legal abortion. In one case, the woman's lawyers argued it was part of a "scheme to harass an ex-girlfriend who has moved on from her relationship with him." Even if Mitchell never moves to sue the women, their providers, or their friends who helped, by filing legal motions, a legal expert told the Tribune, Mitchell can put "the woman in front of a court reporter and force her to answer questions." Making a woman sit through humiliating questioning at the hands of an abusive ex-boyfriend is clearly a punishment in and of itself. And, again, for using her legal and moral right to terminate an unwanted relationship. 

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In the decades after Roe v. Wade, the Christian right insisted stridently that their opposition to abortion was about "protecting life," and was not about restoring male dominance over women. That this was a lie was always evident to those willing to look even a centimeter below the surface. These same forces also organized against sex education and affordable contraception, both far more effective at preventing abortion than abortion bans. But in the aftermath of Dobbs, there can be no doubt. After red states started banning abortion, the abortion rate rose, fitting the pattern seen in other countries with severe abortion restrictions, because anti-abortion states also tend to be hostile to pregnancy prevention. 

These series of legal maneuvers in Texas further flesh out what's really going on here. Nosy right-wing professors and angry ex-boyfriends are not, despite their feeble protestations to the contrary, just really into babies. For people who actually care about children, there are plenty of volunteer opportunities that aid real kids who need food to eat and opportunities to grow. Instead, the throughline is anger at women, whether students in their classrooms or ex-girlfriends who don't return their calls, for living their lives outside of the control of the men who feel entitled to dominate them.


By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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