Texas is now home to one of the country’s most restrictive abortion laws. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill banning abortions as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, before many know they are pregnant. The law also only allows exceptions for medical emergencies, but not for rape or incest.
The law, which will go into effect on September 1st, is different from other anti-abortion legislation. Instead of having state officials enforce the ban, it will allow private citizens, even people who don’t live in Texas, to file civil lawsuits against medical providers who perform an abortion after the six-week limit.
That means that in addition to suing doctors, anyone could sue a person for “aiding and abetting” an abortion after six weeks. That includes anyone who drove a pregnant person to the clinic, who helped pay for the procedure or who provided emotional support. Those who sue can ask for a maximum of $10,000 in damages per defendant.
It is unclear whether the law will stand, as previous abortion restrictions have been overturned in court. Advocates for reproductive rights oppose the bill, but as Austin NPR affiliate KUT reported, it may be more difficult to fight this law in court because it does not come with any criminal penalties, just the ability to sue. “This is a new tactic to circumvent the judiciary, basically,” Dyana Limon-Mercado, executive director of Planned Parenthood Texas Votes, told KUT. “It is untested.”
Although supporters of the bill are calling it a “heartbeat law,” there is no such thing as a fetal heartbeat at such an early stage in pregnancy, as the embryo does not yet have a heart. Instead, the embryo has a detectable electric signal coming from specialized cardiac cells. Limon-Mercado said abortion opponents are trying this new tactic because other similar “heartbeat” laws have been blocked in federal court.
Reproductive rights groups have already said they plan to oppose the law in court. “Texas has now joined the new wave of extreme abortion bans passed this year across the U.S.,” Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement. “This bill essentially opens the floodgates to allow anyone who is hostile to abortion to sue doctors and clinics, consuming their resources and forcing them to shut down. We will pursue all legal options to prevent this law from taking effect.”
The Texas law comes at a time when conservatives are trying to overturn or weaken Roe v. Wade. They sense their odds are now better with Trump appointee Justice Amy Comey Barrett on the Supreme Court following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, an abortion defender. The Supreme Court announced Tuesday it will hear arguments in Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban, which the ACLU described as “the moment anti-abortion politicians have been waiting for.” Other states are also attempting to attack abortion rights as well. According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, state legislatures have introduced 549 new abortion restrictions so far in 2021.