A law that prevents most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy — billed as the strictest abortion law in the US — went into effect this Wednesday (September 1) in the state of Texas.
The new legislation prohibits the practice in the case of fetal heartbeat detection. The concept, championed by anti-abortion activists, is heavily criticized by medical authorities and feminist groups.
The law gives anyone the right to prosecute doctors who perform abortions beyond the six-week threshold.
Dubbed the “Heart Beat Law,” the legislation had been enacted by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in May.
But women’s rights groups such as Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have appealed to the country’s Supreme Court, calling for a veto of the law.
In a ruling Wednesday night, the Supreme Court refused to block the new law. The score went from 5 votes to 4.
The court majority said the ruling “was not based on any conclusions about the constitutionality of Texas law” and that legal challenges could still go ahead.
All three justices appointed by former President Donald Trump to the Supreme Court voted against blocking the ban. In a dissenting opinion, Liberal Minister Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the court’s decision was “stunning”.
“Presented with a call to enact a flagrantly unconstitutional law designed to prohibit women from exercising their constitutional rights and evading judicial scrutiny, most judges have chosen to bury their heads in the sand,” she said.
The ACLU says nearly 90 percent of legal abortions performed in Texas typically occur after six weeks’ gestation and described the law as “flagrantly unconstitutional.”
Planned Parenthood also condemned the legislation on Twitter, saying that “we are not going to back down and we are going to keep fighting. Everyone deserves access to abortion.”
In a statement, President Joe Biden criticized the law, calling it “extreme” and warning that it would “significantly hinder” legal abortion, particularly for low-income Texans or racial minorities.
what does the texan law say
Since 1973, a Supreme Court decision known as Roe v Wade has asserted that women in the US have the right to an abortion until the fetus is considered viable — that is, it is able to survive outside the womb. This usually occurs between 22 and 24 weeks of pregnancy.
The Texas Heartbeat Act, meanwhile, prohibits abortions beyond six weeks—a point at which many women are not even aware of their pregnancy.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says the term “heartbeat” is confusing, since what is detected at this stage of pregnancy is “a portion of fetal tissue that will become the heart as the embryo develops” .
Texas law puts the ban into effect with an unusual approach: it allows any citizen to prosecute anyone who “helps or abets” an illegal abortion.
The exception is for cases of medical emergency, in which a written document signed by the physician will be required. The same is not true, however, for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest.
Texas residents who wish to have an abortion after six weeks will have to leave the state to do so — in effect, traveling an average distance of 400 km, according to estimates by the pro-choice group Guttmacher Institute.
How this differs from other abortion restrictions
Most restrictions on the practice in the US so far have been supported by criminal penalties or different types of regulation.
Texas law, on the other hand, authorizes “the action of a private citizen”, allowing anyone to sue the courts, even if they themselves have no relation to the abortion performed.
Thus, any citizen, whether in Texas or other states, can claim up to $10,000 in damages in a civil court against abortion providers and doctors — and possibly against anyone involved in the process. This included clinic staff, the woman’s relatives, or clergy who help with the abortion decision-making process.
Thus, by placing the law in the hands of private citizens rather than government authorities, the law cannot be legally challenged until a citizen actually initiates a lawsuit.
Kim Schwartz, a member of the anti-abortion group Texas Right to Life (and a supporter of the new law), told the BBC that most anti-abortion laws “spend years being scrutinized in the court system, which frustrates people’s will.” In the case of the current law, he argued, the court will demand that any lawsuit be based on “a credible complaint that an illegal abortion has occurred”, triggering an investigation.
But the ACLU and other critics charge that the law will trigger a “bounty-hunting scheme” by citizens, resulting in costly legal processes designed to inhibit women from seeking abortions.
According to the organization, anti-abortion groups are already organizing telephone lines to receive complaints.
abortion in the USA
Abortion has long been one of the most contentious issues in the US. But surveys by the Pew Center institute indicate that nearly 6 in 10 Americans believe abortion should be legal in all or nearly all cases.
That number has been relatively stable over the past two decades, but it masks a partisan rift: just 35% of Republicans support it.
In Texas, a conservative state, an April poll found that nearly half of voters support an abortion veto after six weeks.
The Texan law is one of many recent efforts to limit abortion in states controlled by Republican politicians.
Idaho, Oklahoma and South Carolina this year passed laws banning abortion after six weeks of pregnancy — all of which have been delayed by legal disputes and have yet to go into effect.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, the year 2021 already sees more restrictions imposed on abortion than another year since the Roe v Wade trial nearly 50 years ago.
Advocates of these anti-abortion measures are empowered by the current composition of the Supreme Court, which currently has six conservative-inclined and three liberal-inclined judges.
Americans in favor of a woman’s right to choose fear that, if there is an opportunity to do so, the majority of the Supreme Court will be in favor of greater restrictions on abortion. This would not make the practice illegal, but it would actually give states decision-making power.
In contrast, Democratic-majority states such as New York have put in place measures to guarantee access to abortion in this type of setting.
Have watched our new videos on YouTube? Subscribe to our channel!