Title IX Says Universities Must Accommodate Students Who Have Had Abortions. Texas Is Suing.

Once again, older white men are leading the antiabortion charge in Texas—this time, by bringing the patriarchal surveillance state into the classroom.

Abortion rights demonstrators march outside of the Harris County Courthouse during the Women’s Wave march in Houston, Texas, on Oct. 8, 2022. (Mark Felix / AFP via Getty Images)

The state of Texas does not believe its overflowing arsenal of antiabortion laws—including a near-total ban on abortion, the infamous SB 8 that turns private parties into bounty-hunters by offering them cash prizes for turning in abortion “aiders and abettors,” and municipal travel bans that similarly encourage vigilante justice against anyone using local roads to transport abortion seekers across state laws—has done enough to strip pregnant people of control over their bodies.

Represented by antiabortion warrior Attorney General Ken Paxton, Texas is suing the Biden administration in a challenge to the Title IX rule that abortion-related discrimination is prohibited sex discrimination. Two professors from the University of Texas-Austin—John Hatfield, a professor of finance, and Daniel Bonevac, a philosophy professor—subsequently joined the suit as named plaintiffs.

UT Austin professors John Hatfield and Daniel A. Bonevac say they won’t excuse absences for students who need to miss class for abortion care.

As stated in their court declarations, the two professors object to and refuse to comply with the “Biden Administration’s recently announced edict … [which] represents an attempt to force every educator in the United States to conform to a highly contentious interpretation of … abortion rights.”

Although identified as a “recent edit,” abortion-based discrimination has been prohibited since the Title IX regulations first went into effect in 1975.

While my focus is on the challenge to abortion protections, the lawsuit also challenges the 2024 Title IX regulations affirming that discrimination and harassment based on “sexual orientation, gender identity and sexual characteristics” are prohibited under Title IX due to the multiple harms, including bullying and harassment, of not having one’s identity recognized or respected.  

In virtually identical court declarations, the professors declare that they will not “honor any student’s demands to be addressed by the singular pronoun ‘they’” to avoid being made “a fool of … to accommodate a student’s delusional beliefs,” and that teaching assistants will not be permitted to “engage in cross-dressing while teaching my classes or interacting with … students.”

To make sense of this case, originally filed at the end of April in the Amarillo division of the federal district court for the northern district of Texas, let’s start by taking a quick look at some of the key players. Once again, older white men are leading the charge—this time, by bringing the patriarchal surveillance state into the classroom.

Ken Paxton has served as attorney general of Texas since 2015. According to Texas Monthly, he “has used his office as a cudgel in the culture wars for the Christian right,” including an unrelenting legal campaign against abortion. Celebrating the fall of Roe, he declared June 24 the annual Sanctity of Life holiday to memorialize the “70 million babies that have been killed in the womb,” and proclaimed that he looked “forward to defending the pro-life laws of Texas and the lives of all unborn children moving forward.”

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton arrives to court during former U.S. President Donald Trump’s trial on April 30, 2024, in New York City. (Curtis Means-Pool / Getty Images)

In a move the Washington Post characterized as “unnecessary, inexplicable cruelty,” after a lower court ruled that Kate Cox, whose fetus had a lethal anomaly, could obtain an abortion under the state’s narrow medical emergency exception, Paxton wrote to the hospitals where her doctor had admitting privileges warning them that the court’s order would not insulate them from criminal and civil liability, including “first degree felony prosecutions.”

The lawsuit was presumably filed in Amarillo because Trump appointee Mathew Kaczmaryk, who is notoriously antiabortion, is its sole presiding judge. Kaczmaryk ruled in favor of the Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine in its challenge to the FDA’s approval of mifepristone and its subsequent relaxing of regulations in an opinion that was permeated with both “junk science” and “misleading antiabortion tropes.” The case was just dismissed by the Supreme Court based on the lack of “legal standing to bring the lawsuit because they were not harmed by the FDA’s loosening of restrictions on mifepristone over the last eight years.”

Bonevac has been one of Trump’s most prominent academic supporters, according to an article that calls him one of “the only conservative [scholars] on campus.” During Trump’s last campaign, Bonevac “became a spokesman of sorts for the Scholars and Writers for America group, which argued that the property tycoon was ‘the candidate most likely to restore the promise of America.’”

Hatfield and Bonevac are represented by Jonathan Mitchell, Trump’s attorney before the Supreme Court in his case to stay on the presidential ballot—and more locally as the legal strategist behind both SB 8 and municipal travel bans, which promote vigilante justice against those aiding or transporting abortions seekers. Through these efforts, Mitchell has been instrumental in transforming Texas into an abortion desert. Adamant about keeping it this way, he is representing several men intent upon punishing their ex-partners for having had abortions. Mitchell is also a key strategist in the growing conservative push to resurrect the moribund 1873 Comstock Act as the basis for imposing a national abortion ban.

Title IX forces Texas educators to “protect women who abort their pregnancies even when doing so violates Texas law,” the lawsuit alleges, such as by requiring them to excuse abortion-related absences as they would any other health-related absence. They say Title IX prohibits discrimination against students who “have engaged in the shipment or receipt of abortion pills and abortion-related paraphernalia in violation of federal law.” (Emphasis added.)

The above reference to federal law points to the Comstock Act—Mitchell’s favorite Victorian era purity law, which was intended to cleanse the nation of sexual corruption by prohibiting the sending of obscene materials, including contraceptives and anything that could be used to cause an abortion. The resurrection of this moribund law has become the conservative backdoor strategy for imposing an abortion ban on the country as a whole. This plan is now firmly embedded in Project 2025—the “unprecedented effort being orchestrated with dozens of right-flank organizations” in order to “dismantle the U.S. government and replace it with Trump’s vision,” according to the Associated Press.

Let’s look more closely at what Hatfield and Bonevac are apparently so upset about when it comes to Title IX’s non-discrimination protections for those who have had abortions or have sent or received abortion pills or “abortion-related paraphernalia” such that they have openly declared their intent to flout federal law.

One key objection is that abortion-related accommodations make them “complicit” in criminal activity.  They also apparently hold their students to the same standard by expecting “their teaching assistants to obey and respect the laws of Texas and the laws of the United States”—so presumably they screen and reject prospective TAs for any kind of legal infraction, such as a speeding ticket or smoking weed.

Additionally, while the professors claim they will accommodate students who need “medically necessary abortions,” they refuse to “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 sets up a binary when it comes to their understanding of the sexual and reproductive lives of their students—namely, that there are only two kinds of abortions:

  • those that are medically necessary (which is an extremely high bar under Texas law), or
  • those that, as they seem to suggest, are undertaken in rather ‘frivolous’ circumstances when weighted against the “act of violence committed against the most vulnerable and defenseless members of the human family.”

Assuming the genuineness of their commitment to antiabortion values, one must noneetheless pause to consider whether something more is involved. A perusal of social media comments makes clear this is indeed the case:

At its core, this case is about the surveillance and control of the sexual and reproductive lives of students, and the chillingly privileged view that professors are somehow entitled to this measure of control over students’ lives based upon their own views about abortion.

Up next:

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.


Shoshanna Ehrlich is professor emerita of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Her books include Who Decides: The Abortion Rights of Teens and the co-authored Abortion Regret: The New Attack on Reproductive Freedom. She is currently collaborating with the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts’ ASPIRE Center for Sexual and Reproductive Health on a minors’ abortion rights and access project.