Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) on Wednesday signed legislation banning abortions in the state as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, a measure slammed by critics as one of the strictest and most extreme measures in the nation and hailed by antiabortion supporters as a landmark achievement.
Abbott, who had publicly offered his support of the bill, celebrated what he deemed a victory for Texans while surrounded by Republicans gathered to watch him sign the proposal in Austin: “The heartbeat bill is now law in the Lone Star State.”
“Our creator endowed us with the right to life and yet millions of children lose their right to life every year because of abortion,” Abbott said at a closed-door ceremony. “In Texas, we work to save those lives. That’s exactly what the Texas Legislature did this session.”
The move, which makes Texas the largest state to ban abortion so early in a pregnancy, comes at a crucial time in the efforts of conservatives attempting to chip away at overturning the landmark 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade. The Supreme Court announced this week that it will review a restrictive Mississippi law that bans most abortions after 15 weeks, potentially providing a clear path to diminish Roe v. Wade’s guarantee of a woman’s right to choose an abortion. Mississippi and Texas are among many Republican-led states to have passed restrictions conflicting with the court’s precedents protecting abortion rights, hoping for a chance to get a case before a Supreme Court they believe is more amenable to their arguments.
In accepting the case for next term, the Supreme Court said Monday that it would examine whether “all pre-viability prohibitions on elective abortions are unconstitutional.”
Abortion has been legal in Texas up to 20 weeks. A procedure after 16 weeks must be done at a hospital or ambulatory surgical center.
More than 53,000 abortions were administered in Texas in 2020, according to data from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. Data compiled by the state indicated that nearly two-thirds of all Texas abortions in the last five years involved Black and Hispanic women.
The Texas bill was met with vehement opposition from Democrats, abortion rights advocates and legal critics, who say that Abbott and Republicans have effectively outlawed abortion in the state. Drucilla Tigner, a policy and advocacy strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, described the new law to the Austin American-Statesman as “the most extreme abortion ban in the country.”
Planned Parenthood’s chapter in the Gulf Coast tweeted that the organization was “still here for patients who need abortion care in Texas” before the law went into effect: “Abortion is health care — period.”
“For a person with a normal menstrual cycle, that is only two weeks after a missed period,” Dyana Limon-Mercado, executive director of Planned Parenthood Texas Votes, said in a statement. “When you factor in the time it takes to confirm a pregnancy, consider your options and make a decision, schedule an appointment and comply with all the restrictions politicians have already put in place for patients and providers, a six-week ban essentially bans abortion outright.”
While other “heartbeat” bills have been passed in other states, the one in Texas also opens people up to legal action by allowing citizens to sue anyone they believe may have been involved in helping a pregnant person violate the ban. Civil charges for those found guilty of providing abortions after the detection of a fetal heartbeat includes an individual fine of $10,000.
That provision has been met by pushback from the legal community. More than 300 Texas attorneys wrote a letter to lawmakers last month that raised constitutional concerns about the bill’s language. The coalition claimed the provision “weaponizes the judicial system” in Texas, warning that people could be subjected to abuse and harassment through the legal system.
“Every citizen is now a private attorney general,” Josh Blackman, a constitutional law professor at South Texas College of Law Houston, told the Texas Tribune. “You can have random people who are against abortion start suing tomorrow.”
Long before the governor signed the legislation Wednesday, Texas’s recent history of passing abortion restrictions was well-known. The state in 2011 required that women view a sonogram and listen to a fetal heartbeat before going through with their abortion. Two years later, the state mandated that abortion clinics needed to be renovated to resemble ambulatory surgical centers, saying that the doctors at those facilities obtain admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. The move resulted in nearly half of the state’s abortion clinics closing. The Supreme Court eventually struck down the bill in 2016.
Those efforts have even trickled over to the west Texas city of Lubbock, whose citizens passed an ordinance banning abortions and declaring the municipality a “sanctuary city for the unborn.” The city — whose residents passed legislation defining abortion at all stages of pregnancy “an act of murder” — is among more than 20 municipalities that have enacted such a measure in the past two years. With a population of more than 250,000, it is the largest to do so — the majority of the “sanctuary cities” are small Texas towns — and the only one where the ordinance was passed by voters rather than elected officials.
The latest abortion bill was introduced by state Rep. Shelby Slawson (R) in the Texas House to raucous cheers from Republicans. Slawson vowed the bill would “protect the lives of our most precious Texans, starting at the moment their heart begins to beat.”
Democrats, led by state Rep. Donna Howard, argued that Republicans’ position on what constitutes a fetal heartbeat was flawed. On the state House floor, Howard, a former nurse, cited medical experts who say that the sound referred to as a heartbeat was instead what’s referred to “electrically induced flickering” of fetal tissue.
“There is no heartbeat at the time frame we’re talking about here,” she said earlier this month. “There is electrical activity. That is a fact.”
Despite Howard’s argument, the bill sailed through the state House in an almost entirely party-line vote.
In the Texas Senate, which had already passed similar legislation, the chamber easily approved the House bill last week. State Sen. Bryan Hughes (R), who authored the bill in the chamber, remarked to CNN before Wednesday’s ceremony how “it was time for Texas to pass a heartbeat bill.”
“The Texas Heartbeat Act is the most powerful pro-life legislation in Texas history and will stand as a model for the country,” he said in a Wednesday tweet.
His sentiment was echoed by the antiabortion group Texas Right to Life, which praised the “landmark victory” as a “vital step in the road to abolishing all abortions in Texas.”
Though abortion rights advocates said the law would have a “chilling effect” throughout the state, they vowed not to let the ban go unchallenged in court. Tigner, of the ACLU of Texas, emphasized to the American-Statesman that despite the six-week ban, “abortion is both legal in Texas and supported by the majority of Texans.”
“The governor’s swipe of a pen can’t change the Constitution,” Tigner said.
Robert Barnes and Brittany Shammas contributed to this report.