What to know about the Texas Abortion Law

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Abortions rights advocates rally in Austin in 2019. (Eric Gay/AP)

Texas has virtually outlawed most abortions, and the statute has been upheld by a conservative Supreme Court and a lower federal court as a lengthy legal struggle unfolds.

What does the Texas law imply for legalized abortion, and what does it mean for the rest of the country?

Any pregnancy in which a heartbeat is detected cannot be aborted, according to the law, which was approved in May and took effect on Sept. 1. That practically implies you can’t have an abortion in Texas if you’re six weeks pregnant, because that’s when most fetal heart activity can be detected. (Opponents of the bill argue that this is deceptive terminology, and that the fluttering noticed isn’t usually a heartbeat so early in a pregnancy.)

Rape, sexual abuse, and incest are all prohibited under the law.

Another new feature of the regulation is that it encourages the public to monitor abortions. After that six-week threshold, people can sue an abortion practitioner or anybody else they suspect of “aiding and abetting” abortions. As a result, an abortion seeker in Texas cannot be sued. But the provider, or the person who drove that person there, or the referral counselor, and so on, explains Caroline Kitchener of The Washington Post. A $10,000 award (to be paid by the defendant) is fixed by law for any successful action to prevent an abortion.

These choices, taken together, allowed Texas lawmakers to effectively ban abortions in the state, according to abortion rights groups.

This is something that Texas Republicans do not refute. The bill “ensures that the life of every unborn child with a heartbeat will be protected from the ravages of abortion,” declared Gov. Greg Abbott (R) when he signed it in May.

Abortion opponents sued, but the Supreme Court, which has recently become more conservative, refused to put the statute on hold while lower courts debated the merits. So far, the lower courts have unanimously agreed to maintain it.

First, it declined to comment on whether the Texas bill should be repealed before it became law.

The court then went even farther, announcing that a five-member conservative majority had voted to uphold the law. The court’s most conservative justices, including three of President Donald Trump’s nominees, such as Amy Coney Barrett, said there are “serious questions regarding the constitutionality of the Texas law,” but that the court is unsure how to stop it from taking effect because of the way the law was written.

Three liberal justices dissented, joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. Roberts stated that he would block the law’s implementation since it is so unique and far-reaching.

The Supreme Court did not rule on the constitutionality of the abortion restriction. They just stated that it will remain in place until the issue is resolved.

That was an unexpected move that could signal the court is ready to strike down Supreme Court precedent created nearly 50 years ago in Roe v. Wade that guarantees a pregnant individual’s right to abortion in the first half of pregnancy before the fetus would be viable outside the womb, said Lisa Soronen, executive director of the State and Local Legal Center, which supports municipalities in cases before the Supreme Court.

“The justices know that this Texas law violates Roe v. Wade,” she said. “They all know that.” Keeping the law in place doesn’t overturn Roe, but it does make a “really big statement about what they think of it,” Soronen added.

When Trump filled the Supreme Court with three conservative justices, declaring he wanted to abolish abortion, one of abortion rights advocates’ worst worries was a statute like the Texas ban — and the Supreme Court’s reaction to it thus far.

In recent years, Republican-led states have approved a slew of stringent abortion restrictions. Montana and New Hampshire, respectively, imposed restrictions on abortions at 20 and 24 weeks this year. Montana’s ban was overturned at the last minute by the courts.

The courts have traditionally been a bulwark for abortion rights supporters. But can they rely on the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land?

If the Supreme Court were to reconsider Roe v. Wade, the abortion landscape would change dramatically.

If the Supreme Court overturns current legal protections for abortion, the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights, estimates that abortion might be severely restricted or prohibited in as many as 22 states.

Congress may be able to intervene to fix this. There is no federal statute that protects the right to abortion. House Democrats advanced a bill that practically allows abortions up to the point where the fetus is viable outside the womb, and then only if the pregnancy poses a health risk to the mother. President Biden stated that he is in favor of it. Republicans in the Senate, though, will block it.

When it comes to draconian abortion restrictions, the Supreme Court has sided with abortion providers. With Roe v. Wade in 1973, the Supreme Court recognized the right to abortion, which was followed by another important case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, in 1992.

Last year, when the court was split 5-to-4 in favor of the conservatives, it struck down a Louisiana abortion legislation.

To eliminate the right to abortion, the court would have to reverse a lot of precedent.

The five conservative justices said that they recognize that abortion rights advocates “have raised serious doubts regarding the constitutionality of the Texas law” in response to the Texas law.

They’ll hear arguments in December regarding whether Mississippi’s 15-week ban is unconstitutional.