On 19 May 2021, Governor Greg Abbott of Texas signed into law one of the US’ most restrictive abortion measures, banning the procedure after only six weeks of pregnancy. Also known as the ‘heartbeat bill’, the legislature is this close to an outright ban on abortion, as many women are not aware they are pregnant at the six-week mark. Many other states in the country have passed such bans, but in Texas, things have become even more brainless.
“Ordinarily, enforcement would be up to government officials, and if clinics wanted to challenge the law’s constitutionality, they would sue those officials in making their case. But the law in Texas prohibits officials from enforcing it,” writes The New York Times. Instead, the State Legislature TX SB8 allows any private citizen—including those from outside Texas—to sue doctors or abortion clinic employees who would perform or help arrange for the procedure. The bounty? At least $10,000 per illegal abortion if they are successful, paid by the clinics themselves.
Citizens laying down the law instead of the state of Texas and being rewarded for it? Sounds like a modern adaptation of a Western movie set in 1880, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. The law will take effect on 1 September 2021, and until then, the fight for its obstruction looks near impossible. In simpler terms, it’s hard to know whom to sue in order to block it, and lawyers for clinics are now wrestling with what to do about it. Meanwhile in other states, six-week bans have all been blocked as they make their way through the court system.
While abortions have long been a controversial topic in America, it was, at least temporarily, laid to rest following the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, which granted women across the US the right to abort their pregnancy up until the point of fetal viability—which usually occurs after 24 or 25 weeks. Over the past decade however, pro-life activists, also known as the anti-abortion movement, have scored major victories in state legislatures.
“The 2021 legislative season has set the record for the most abortion restrictions signed in a single year in the United States, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks abortion statistics and supports abortion rights,” writers The New York Times. With conservatives making up its solid majority, the Supreme Court has shifted too.
Not only is this new law backwards to say the least, it also undermines democracy in the country. In an open letter published this spring, more than 370 Texas lawyers called the law an “unprecedented abuse of civil litigation,” and said it could “have a destabilising impact on the state’s legal infrastructure.”
“If the barista at Starbucks overhears you talking about your abortion, and it was performed after six weeks, that barista is authorised to sue the clinic where you obtained the abortion and to sue any other person who helped you, like the Uber driver who took you there,” Melissa Murray, a law professor at New York University, told The New York Times.
In this instance, private enforcement is not in support of state enforcement; it is in lieu of it, a switch that surely cannot be good for democracy. Lawyers for the Texan clinics argue that a six-week abortion ban is clearly unconstitutional, and that the Texas law is designed to insulate the state from a challenge. Federal protection currently extends to pregnancies up to the point at which a fetus can sustain life outside the womb, about 23 or 24 weeks. The new law, if it takes effect, will make deciding constitutional rights issues much harder.
As of now, abortion is still legal in Texas. But the letter of the law isn’t nearly as powerful as the legal environment Texans now live in when it comes to abortion. SB 8 may not pass legal review, but it doesn’t have to—not if shaming and coercing people is the point. That’s already standard practice in the state.