(NEW YORK) — The most restrictive abortion law in the nation took effect in Texas early Wednesday, effectively barring the procedure across the state, as the U.S. Supreme Court remained silent on an emergency request from women’s health groups to block the measure while legal challenges continue.
Texas becomes the first and only state in the country to outlaw abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy. Twelve other states have passed similar laws that have not yet taken effect due to legal challenges.
Abortion providers across Texas had said the measure would “immediately and catastrophically” prevent care for “at least 85%” of Texas abortion patients. Several clinics reported full waiting rooms up until the midnight deadline.
“Our clinic staff saw patients until 11:56 last night, just 3 minutes before the 6 week abortion ban went into effect in Texas,” Whole Women’s Health, a top abortion provider in Texas, posted to Twitter.
Most of the abortions performed nationwide are after 6 weeks of pregnancy; staff at several Texas clinics have said they plan to start turning away patients Wednesday.
“Our clinics are providing abortions in accordance with the law,” the group added Wednesday. “Our work is not over.”
The law, Senate Bill 8, says “a physician may not knowingly perform or induce an abortion … if the physician detects a fetal hearbeat,” including embryonic cardiac activity, that can be observed as early as six weeks into a pregnancy.
In an unusual twist, the law expressly prohibits the state from enforcing the ban, instead authorizing private citizens to bring civil suits against anyone who “aids or abets” an abortion — but not the patient herself.
“It actively encourages private individuals to act as bounty hunters by awarding them at least $10,000 if they are successful,” the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement.
The enforcement mechanism has complicated the legal dispute before the Supreme Court, because it is not clear who might bring a lawsuit and how widespread private legal action might be.
The abortion providers “have not shown they’ll be harmed by a bill that may never be enforced against them by anyone, much less the government,” a group of Texas state officials defending the law wrote in a filing with the Supreme Court late Tuesday.
The court has only been asked at this stage to decide whether or not to issue a temporary injunction on S.B. 8 while lower-level court proceedings continue. Whatever the decision, legal experts cautioned that it will not have direct bearing on the precedent in Roe v Wade or abortion rights more broadly across the country.
The justices are likely to weigh in on the matter but do not operate on a fixed timeline.
“The abortion industry is using their last, desperate option in an attempt to block the life-saving Texas Heartbeat Act,” said John Seago, legislative director of Texas Right to Life, an anti-abortion rights group.
“This anti-Life lawsuit is invalid. We are hopeful that Justice Alito will examine the compelling arguments raised explaining why the case should be ultimately dismissed,” he said.
Women’s rights groups planned protests against S.B. 8 across Texas on Wednesday afternoon. Meanwhile, advocates said women seeking abortion services now faced expensive and time-consuming options to obtain care.
“Patients will have to travel out of state – in the middle of a pandemic – to receive constitutionally guaranteed healthcare,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is leading the challenges to Texas’ law. “And many will not have the means to do so. It’s cruel, unconscionable, and unlawful.”
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