Texas is soon to be home to one of the nation’s strictest abortion laws, leaving some with a sense of victory while others try to figure out how to crush the bill before it goes into effect in September.
Senate Bill 8, known as the “heartbeat’ bill, would prohibit abortions once a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which is early as six weeks. Gov. Greg Abbott signed the bill Wednesday.
But unlike other abortion laws, the measure allows private citizens to sue abortion providers or anyone who helps someone get an abortion after a fetal heartbeat has been detected. An abortion clinic operator said under this law an Uber driver could be sued for taking someone to an abortion clinic.
There were 56,620 abortions in 2019 in Texas, most of them in the first trimester, according to state data.
Eight other states have tried to adopt fetal heartbeat laws but were either permanently or temporarily stopped by courts, according to an analysis from the Guttmacher Institute.
Providers fear that they’ll be sued and that people will stop seeking abortions. Supporters welcome court challenges and hope this is the first step to an outright ban.
“What this law does is make abortion practically inaccessible for people in Texas,” said Kamyon Conner, executive director of Texas Equal Access Fund, a nonprofit based in Dallas that helps low-income and people of color get abortions.
Conner called the law disgraceful and said it blocks people from making their own decisions.
“Anti-abortion politicians continue to deny our freedom and create obstacles when it comes to decisions about our health, our bodies and our families,” Conner said.
Currently most abortions in Texas are prohibited after about 20 weeks. Pill-induced abortions are barred at 10 weeks. An abortion provider must perform a sonogram on the woman 24 hours before the abortion and give them provide women information about medical risks, abortion alternatives and assistance available to those who follow through with their pregnancy.
The bill was a Republican priority for the 87th Texas Legislature. Nearly all Republicans signed on as an author or sponsor of the measure. Rep. Ryan Guillen of Rio Grande City and Sen. Eddie Lucio of Cameron County were the only Democrats to vote for the bill.
Conner said the law is a direct attack on organizations like hers. It would especially hurt the people of color her organization serves because access to health care is already difficult for minority communities.
In meetings with her team and supporters, Conner said the conversation has been around whether they need to start thinking about sending people to other states to get an abortion. New Mexico is the closest state with no restrictions on abortion.
Amy Hagstrom Miller, founder and CEO of Whole Woman’s Health, expects lawsuits from private citizens once the law takes effect. People were trying to close the Whole Woman’s Health clinic in Fort Worth before this law, Miller said.
In one tactic people reported code violations to the city. The clinic had to shut down once to replace the water heater because someone complained. Protesters are common outside the clinic.
Miller said the provider is developing a strategy to challenge the law in court before it becomes official in September.
Rebecca Parma of Texas Right to Life said anti-abortion organizations are not afraid for this legislation to hit the courts.
“Abortion came through the court system with Roe v. Wade and so that’s how we’re going to overturn Roe v. Wade — through a court case,” Parma said. “Whether this law, or the other laws that are working their way through the judicial system, that’s part of our legal strategy and so we’re not afraid for these laws to go to the courts or be sued.”
Parma said the law will save lives, but she wants a law that makes abortion illegal at the moment of conception.
“We’d like to see more and stronger legislation get to the finish line,” Parma said.
The law makes sense because it identifies with the heartbeat, which is the universal sign of life, Parma said. Under the law, once that life is identified that child is worthy of protection, she said.
Abbott on Wednesday said: “Our creator endowed us with the right to life and yet millions of children lose their right to life every year because of abortion.”
Council For Life, a Dallas-based anti-abortion organization, said in a statement it is grateful for the bill.
“The law is an important step toward the goal of ending the tragedy of abortion. Council for Life looks forward to the day when abortion is unthinkable,” the statement said.
Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, called the law unconstitutional and predicted the U.S. Supreme Court will not overturn Roe v. Wade. The Supreme Court said it would hear a case concerning a Mississippi law that would ban most abortions after 15 weeks. It is the first major abortion case that will be heard before the court’s newly expanded conservative majority.
“It’s a purely symbolic bill,” Jones said. “It’s so restrictive that it has no hope, and the Supreme Court has already ruled, either directly or indirectly, that dozens and dozens of these heartbeat laws are unconstitutional.”
Jones sees the law as a way for Abbott, House Speaker Dade Phelan and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to tell Republicans that they’re committed to ending abortion.
No credible federal judge will allow this law to be enforced, Jones believes.
“It’s important to look at this through the lens of symbolic Republican politics,” he said. “Speaker Dade Phelan may not be providing conservatives with everything they want this session, but this will be something that both he and Gov. Abbott will point to if they get critiques from the right.”