Washington (AFP) – A Texas law that bans abortion after six weeks, before many women even know they are pregnant, took effect on Wednesday after the Supreme Court failed to act on an emergency request to block it.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, signed a bill in May that bans abortion once a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which is usually in the sixth week of pregnancy.
The legislation, known as Senate Bill 8, or SB8, makes no exception for rape or incest and would make Texas the hardest state in the country in which to get an abortion.
While similar laws have been passed in a dozen Republican-led conservative states, all had so far been blocked in the courts from going into force.
The American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood, the Center for Reproductive Rights and other groups filed an emergency request with the Supreme Court on Monday, asking it to stop the Texas law from taking effect.
The court declined to rule by midnight — although it may still eventually grant the request from rights groups and abortion providers to halt the so-called “heartbeat bill.”
Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the US House of Representatives, said the failure of the Supreme Court to act has “delivered catastrophe to women in Texas.”
“This radical law is an all-out effort to erase the rights and protections of Roe v Wade,” Pelosi said, in a reference to the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling that enshrined a woman’s right to an abortion.
“Every woman, everywhere, has the constitutional and moral right to basic reproductive health care,” Pelosi said.
The ACLU said the impact of the bill will be “immediate and devastating.”
“Access to almost all abortion has just been cut off for millions of people,” the powerful civil rights association said.
“This abortion ban is blatantly unconstitutional,” it said. “We won’t stop fighting until it’s blocked.”
According to the ACLU, “approximately 85 to 90 percent” of women who obtain an abortion in Texas are at least six weeks into pregnancy.
‘Cruel, unconscionable, and unlawful’
The other states that have sought to enact restrictions on abortion in the early stages of pregnancy have been barred from doing so by Roe v Wade.
That decision allowed abortion so long as the fetus is not viable outside the womb, which is usually the case until the 22nd to 24th weeks of pregnancy.
Texas’s law is different from those of other states because it allows the public — rather than state officials such as prosecutors or health departments — to bring legal action to enforce the ban.
Everyday citizens are encouraged to report doctors who perform abortions or anyone who helped facilitate the procedure.
The Texas law “creates a bounty hunting scheme that encourages the general public to bring costly and harassing lawsuits against anyone who they believe has violated the ban,” the ACLU said.
“Anyone who successfully sues a health center worker, an abortion provider, or any person who helps someone access an abortion after six weeks will be rewarded with at least $10,000, to be paid by the person sued,” it said.
“Anti-abortion groups in Texas have already set up online forms enlisting people to sue anyone they believe is violating the law and encouraging people to submit ‘anonymous tips’ on doctors, clinics, and others who violate the law,” it said.
Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said the Texas bill would force women to “travel out of state — in the middle of a pandemic — to receive constitutionally guaranteed health care.”
“Many will not be able to afford to,” Northup said. “It’s cruel, unconscionable, and unlawful.”
The Supreme Court is due to hear a case in the coming months involving a Mississippi law that prohibits abortions after the 15th week of pregnancy except in cases of medical emergency or a severe fetal abnormality.
It will be the first abortion case considered by the nation’s high court since former president Donald Trump cemented a conservative-leaning 6-3 majority on the nine-member panel.