By Ella Lloyd | Political Editor
A controversial law banning abortion has come into effect in Texas.
The law, known as Senate Bill 8 (SB8), prohibits abortion from 6 weeks into pregnancy, or when what anti-abortion campaigners call a fetal heartbeat can be detected. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists suggests that this is misleading though, arguing this is actually when ‘a portion of the fetal tissue that will become a heart as the embryo develops’.
Other states have attempted to implement ‘heartbeat bills’ however these efforts have been blocked by state courts.
The law offers an exception in the case of a medical emergency, but not for cases of rape and incest.
The law would prevent more than 80% of women from obtaining an abortion, as most women don’t realize they are pregnant as early as the 6-week cut off. Many women will now have to travel out of state to access care – an average round trip of nearly 500 miles, providing women are able to secure the time off work, care for existing children, and money to make the journey.
This law is different from previous attempts to curtail abortion rights in America (originally secured by the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe vs Wade), as it empowers ordinary people to seek action in civil courts rather than criminal courts.
Under the law, any American citizen may sue an abortion provider, or anybody who ‘aids and abets’ someone obtaining an illegal abortion for damages up to a value of $10,000 (£7,200) even if they themselves are not affected by the termination. In theory, any individual, including staff at clinics or family members who assist with transport could be sued.
Abortion providers fear this could lead to a number of vigilante, bounty-hunter lawsuits, with some discontinuing services to avoid the costs of these. Anti-abortion lobby group Texas Right to Life have already created a website, encouraging citizens to ‘whistleblow’ and report violations of the law.
Chelsey Youman, the legislative director of Human Coalition Action Texas, an anti-abortion group, welcomed the ban, saying it would ‘protect the most vulnerable among us, preborn children’. Speaking to BBC Newsnight, Texas Senator Brian Hughes who introduced the Heartbeat Bill emphasized that it was not women who are liable under this law, but doctors who perform illegal abortions.
Speaking to The Guardian Dr Ghazaleh Moayedi, an abortion provider in Texas has called the law ‘unethical, inhumane, and unjust’, and expressed concern that the law will inevitably affect vulnerable women the most, including those with significant financial barriers, and Black and Latina women.
UN human rights monitors have condemned SB8 as ‘sex discrimination at its finest’.
The Supreme Court has refused to block the law, despite last minute pleas from pro-choice campaigners. Justices ruled against an injunction preventing its implementation 5-4.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor called the law ‘flagrantly unconstitutional’, something which has been echoed by President Joe Biden. The White House’s spokeswoman stressed that the president had previously expressed his wish for Roe vs Wade to become federal law, and stated that SB8 highlighted the importance of that.
Polling from the Pew Research Center suggests that around 60% of Americans support legal abortion in most cases. However, despite a slight shift to the left in recent years, Texas is still a particularly conservative state, with large regions often considered a part of the ‘Bible Belt’, and in April a poll indicated that nearly half of voters supported a ‘heartbeat ban’.
Pro-choice activists in other states such as Iowa, where a ‘heartbeat law’ was blocked by courts, are speculating that SB8 could lead to renewed efforts to implement similar bans elsewhere in the country.
Both Planned Parenthood and Whole Woman’s Health have stated their intention to comply with the law despite their opposition to it.
Planned Parenthood said in a tweet that they were ‘still fighting’ and confirmed their message that ‘everyone deserves access to abortion’.
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