Texas Just Effectively Banned Abortions. Rights Groups Plan to Fight Back.

Abortion-rights protesters gathered at the U.S. Supreme Court ahead of SCOTUS' ruling on Texas' last major abortion law, 2013's House Bill 2.
Abortion-rights protesters gathered at the U.S. Supreme Court ahead of SCOTUS' ruling on Texas' last major abortion law, 2013's House Bill 2. Shutterstock
On Wednesday, Gov. Greg Abbott posted on Twitter a video of himself sitting at a desk with dozens of lawmakers huddled around him, a sheaf of papers on the tabletop. He thanked the audience, insisted that God "endowed us with the right to life" and then got down to business.

Abbott lamented that “millions of children lose their right to life every year because of abortion,” explaining that Texas lawmakers had fought to preserve life. When he signed Senate Bill 8 into law, the state legislators around him broke out in applause.

With the stroke of his pen, SB 8 became one of the harshest anti-abortion laws on the books across the nation. It will go into effect on Sept. 1, barring the inevitable court battles.

If enacted, it will prohibit abortions after six weeks and allow anyone in the country to file civil lawsuits against abortion providers and groups that “aid and abet” abortions, such as those who organize transportation for people seeking out the procedure.

Earlier this year, Abbott prioritized abortion legislation. Since then, Texas Republicans, along with a few anti-abortion Democrats, have introduced one bill after another seeking to chip away at reproductive rights in the state.
Some were extreme, even for Texas. Republican state Rep. Bryan Slaton proposed the death penalty for abortion providers and those who receive the procedure. Another bill would have allowed a judge to appoint a lawyer to represent a fetus when a teen seeks judicial bypass to receive an abortion.

Unlike those bills, lawmakers sent SB 8 all the way to the governor's desk. Reproductive rights group spoke out quickly. Rosann Mariapurram of Jane’s Due Process, an Austin-based group that helps teens seeking abortions, said the law will put the procedure “out of reach for almost everyone.”

Most people don’t yet know they’re pregnant yet at six weeks, she explained. "It is like a full abortion ban," she said. "We've already heard from a lot of teens that think abortion's illegal already."

She wants people to know that until this bill goes into effect, abortion is still legal in Texas. "I think that's the danger of what we have to work on this summer and the fall, just making sure that people don't just give up,” she said.

More worrisome still, Jane’s Due Process and others like it could find themselves fielding civil lawsuits from anti-abortion groups anywhere in the country.

"It is like a full abortion ban." - Rosann Mariapurram, Jane's Due Process.

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Anna Rupani is co-executive director of Fund Texas Choice, a nonprofit organization that pays for travel to and from abortion clinics for individuals who live far from the nearest provider. The organization was founded after Texas passed a law in 2013 that led to the shuttering of nearly three-quarters of abortion clinics statewide.

The Supreme Court undid that bill in 2016, but many clinics never reopened, and some Texans several live hours away from the nearest provider.

Now, Rupani says many of Fund Texas Choice's clients travel upwards of 100 miles to receive abortions. But SB 8 will force many to have to travel out of state or go through unsafe procedures to avoid legal trouble. At the same time, she fears the law will further stigmatize the procedure.

"It would obviously impact organizations like us because we help Texans get to their abortion," she said. "Our staff, our volunteers, our donors would be in trouble for supporting fellow Texans."

An open letter published last month decried SB 8 and HB 1515, a similar bill. It was signed by county attorneys, current and former elected officials, former judges, law professors and other members of the State Bar of Texas.

"The bill is so extreme that it could even allow a rapist to sue a doctor for providing care to a sexual assault survivor and for the rapist to recover financial damages — allowing predators to profit off of their assault," Travis County Attorney Delia Garza said in the letter.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, who also signed the letter, warned that Texas lawmakers were "sending the message that the courts are a venue for political intimidation rather than the serious business of interpreting the law."

"Our staff, our volunteers, our donors would be in trouble for supporting fellow Texans." - Anna Rupani, Texas Choice Fund

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Earlier this week, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas filed a lawsuit against the city of Lubbock, where voters earlier this month passed an ordinance to ban abortion within city limits. The group says the so-called heartbeat bill marks one of the most “extreme” abortion bans in the country.

“Not only does this ban violate more than half a century of Supreme Court case law, it paves the way for anti-choice extremists to use our court system to go after anyone who performs abortions or considers supporting a person that has one,” said Drucilla Tigner, policy and advocacy strategist of the ACLU of Texas.

"But make no mistake, abortion is both legal in Texas and supported by the majority of Texans," Tigner added. "The governor’s swipe of a pen can’t change the Constitution."

But anti-choice advocacy groups say they aren’t finished yet. In a statement on Wednesday, Texas Right to Life said they hope lawmakers will pass additional abortion restrictions before the legislative session ends later this month.

“The work of protecting Life in Texas is not finished,” the statement said. “The abortion industry continues to threaten vulnerable preborn children with discriminatory and early abortions.”

Texas state Sen. Bryan Hughes, who introduced SB 8, celebrated Abbott’s signing of the bill on Twitter, describing it as "the most powerful pro-life legislation in Texas history" and saying it “will stand as a model for the country.”

Fund Texas Choice's Anna Rupani says abortion isn't going away in Texas, even if it's effectively banned. "I would say this legislative session is probably one of the more cruel legislative sessions we've had," she explained, referring to controversial voting restrictions, anti-trans bills and other proposed legislation.

"It's pretty damaging," she added. "This affects everyday Texans, especially Black and brown Texans." 
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Patrick Strickland is the news editor at the Dallas Observer. He's a former senior reporter at Al Jazeera English and has reported for the New York Review of Books, The Guardian, Politico EU and The New Republic, among others.