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Zoe Kelly

Zoe Kelly '24 provides a brief history of abortion laws in the United States, as well as explaining the recent, heavily disputed Texas Heartbeat Act.

Abortion has been a controversial topic for decades, and while some advocate for the right of women to make decisions over their bodily autonomy, others are striving to limit women’s access to abortion. The Supreme Court ruling Roe v. Wade instituted a Constitutional right to abortion access nearly half a century ago, however, some state governments have attempted to implement restrictive terms to qualify for the procedure. Many of the stricter laws have been challenged in court, being prevented from being enforced.

These laws, while somewhat reducing the ability to get an abortion in the state of Texas, have been surpassed earlier this month, by a new, even more restricting law signed by Governor Greg Abbott. In the early days of September 2021, Texas lawmakers passed the “Texas Heartbeat Act” despite the Supreme Court ruling from 1973. This law effectively bans all abortions that take place later than six weeks into a pregnancy. Few women know that they are pregnant at this stage. The law’s basis for banning abortions includes the presence of cardiac activity in the fetus. It contains few exceptions. The main exception considers if a woman’s health will face severe ramifications by continuing a pregnancy.

There have been other laws restricting abortion in Texas and around the country for years, so what makes this new law different? In many states with a dominantly conservative government, abortion laws have always been fairly strict, especially in Texas. After the Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973, the state of Texas decided against repealing their already implemented laws against abortion. A law passed in 1992 allowed only licensed Texas physicians to perform abortions. Five years later, a string of 21 abortion regulation laws were introduced into the Texas legislature. Five were enacted. The state gave healthcare workers the option to refuse to participate in the procedure, either directly or indirectly. In addition to this, private hospitals were allowed to refuse to provide abortions unless a pregnant woman’s life was in immediate danger. State funding would no longer be used to fund the procedure. In the early 2000s, more laws were implemented, paradoxically resulting in an uptick in abortion rates. For minors, parental consent was required and teenage girls seeking abortion increased 21%. Clinics were then required to provide women with a “Woman’s Right to Know” pamphlet which included factually incorrect medical information. Over the next 10 years, nearly all abortions being sought after 22 weeks into a pregnancy were banned. These laws, although already restrictive, are somewhat lax in comparison to the current six week ban.

The “Texas Heartbeat Act” also has one major difference from most previous abortion laws. Instead of having the government enforce the law, the power is handed to private citizens. Citizens in Texas have the option to sue abortion providers or anyone who assists someone in getting an abortion after six weeks into a pregnancy. This can include the person who provided a car ride for the woman, or someone who funded the procedure. Multiple people can be sued for every one doctor that defies the abortion law. The citizen intent on filing a lawsuit does not need to be connected in any way to the woman who had an abortion or her provider. They can sue for upwards of $10,000.

The same evening as the law went into effect, numerous organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, requested an emergency appeal. The Supreme Court voted on the issue at nearly midnight on September 1st, but with a 5 to 4 verdict, they denied the emergency appeal. Women in Texas now have very limited options when deciding whether to continue a pregnancy. The bill was opposed by over 300 Texas Lawyers who believe that it undermines aspects of the legal system on lawsuits.

As of now, it is unlikely that the law will be changed, but federal judges may strike down this new Texas restriction. The complexity of this law is vast, and many people will have contrasting opinions on the issue.