Legislation that would ban abortions after as early as six weeks — before many women know they are pregnant — and let virtually any private citizen sue abortion providers and others was given final approval by lawmakers Thursday and is headed to Gov. Greg Abbott, who has signaled he will sign it into law.
Senate Bill 8, a Republican priority measure, is similar to "heartbeat bills" passed in other states that have been mostly stopped by the courts. But proponents of the Texas legislation believe it's structured in a way that makes it tougher to block.
The bill was denounced by hundreds of lawmakers and doctors — in letters circulated by opponents of the measure — who said its broad legal language could open the door to harassing or frivolous lawsuits that could have a "chilling effect" on abortion providers and leave rape crisis counselors, nurses and clinic staff "subject to tens of thousands of dollars in liability to total strangers." Abortion rights advocates say it is among the most extreme restrictions nationwide.
The bill, which would take effect later this year, bans abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected without specifying a time frame. A legislative analysis and the bill's proponents have said that can be as early as six weeks, though state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, in a floor debate cited medical experts who say there is no fully developed heart at that gestational age and that the sound referred to as a heartbeat is actually "electrically induced flickering" of fetal tissue.
The bill makes an exception allowing for abortions in the case of a medical emergency but not for rape or incest.
It would be enforced by private citizens empowered to sue abortion providers and others who help someone get an abortion after six weeks, for example, by driving them to an abortion clinic.
Those private citizens would not need to have a connection to an abortion provider or a person seeking an abortion, and would not need to reside in Texas.
A person who impregnated someone through rape or incest could not sue.
The bill would not be enforced by public officials. Proponents hope that will prevent abortion rights advocates from suing the state to prevent the law from taking effect, though some legal experts have doubts about the strategy.
The anti-abortion Texas Right to Life organization, which supported the bill, said it lets citizens hold abortion providers "accountable through private lawsuits," which has not been tried in any other state.
"The Texas Heartbeat Act is the strongest Pro-Life bill passed by the Legislature since Roe v. Wade," said Rebecca Parma, the organization's senior legislative associate.
Abortion rights advocates denounced the bill.
"With their lack of power at the federal level, anti-choice lawmakers across the country are ramping up their attacks on reproductive freedom at the state level, and cruelty appears to be the point," said NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue.
The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.