Courts

Pro-Choice Groups File Last-Ditch Request Asking U.S. Supreme Court To Block TX Heartbeat Bill

Pro-choice protesters gathered in Austin in May after the Legislature passed its "heartbeat" abortion bill.
Pro-choice protesters gathered in Austin in May after the Legislature passed its "heartbeat" abortion bill. Screenshot
Texas abortion advocates hoped a legal challenge to Senate Bill 8 — the state’s new “heartbeat” abortion law that would effectively ban all abortions in the state after a fetal heartbeat is detected — could lead a federal district court to block the law from going into effect later this week. But the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals dashed those hopes Friday night when it cancelled a Monday hearing on the law and refused another request from pro-choice groups to block its enforcement over the weekend.

Now, the same groups are waging a last-ditch effort to get the nation’s highest court to step in, less than two days before the law is set to go into effect Wednesday.

On Monday afternoon, Planned Parenthood, the Center for Reproductive Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union filed an emergency request for the U.S. Supreme Court to block Texas’ restrictive abortion law before it takes effect on September 1.

If Senate Bill 8, the so-called “heartbeat” bill goes into effect Wednesday, it would ban abortions from being performed after a fetus has a detectable heartbeat, which is typically between five and six weeks of pregnancy and well before many women realize they are pregnant. Not only would the law affect abortion providers who carried out such abortions, but it would also affect any person who “aids or abets” a Texan who receives an abortion once a fetus’ heartbeat is detected.

Instead of being enforced by state government officials, the law would instead allow for any person to sue both the abortion provider and any person who helps or consults with someone who gets such an abortion for up to $10,000 in civil damages, even if the person suing doesn’t reside in Texas or doesn’t personally know the Texan who allegedly had an illegal abortion. Even if a case against an abortion provider or another person connected with an abortion fails, those defendants’ legal fees would not have to be reimbursed by the state or by those who sued in the first place.

Texas abortion provider Whole Woman’s Health has said that 90 percent of the abortions performed at its clinics take place after six weeks of pregnancy, meaning the vast majority of those abortions would be illegal if SB 8 goes into effect Wednesday. Many Texas abortion providers are resigned that they’ll have to significantly scale back operations or even close clinics entirely out of fear of being bogged down in potentially endless lawsuits made possible by the new law.

Research from the pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute found that SB 8 going into effect could likely cause “the average one-way driving distance for pregnant Texans seeking an abortion [to] increase 20-fold, from 12 miles to 248 miles.”

Amy Hagstrom Miller, president and CEO of Whole Woman’s Health, described the stakes of Monday’s emergency request in stark terms. “Texans, like everyone else in this county, should be able to count on safe abortion care in their own state. No one should be forced to drive hundreds of miles or be made to continue a pregnancy against their will, yet that’s what will happen unless the Supreme Court steps in,” Hagstrom said in a statement.

Multiple other Republican-led states have attempted to pass so-called "heartbeat" bills of their own, a misnomer due to the fact that medical experts have explained that what anti-abortion advocates claim is a fetal “heartbeat” is actually just measurable electrical activity from clumps of fetal cells. None of those other heartbeat bill laws have gone into effect due to successful legal challenges from the ACLU, Planned Parenthood and other groups, but the Texas law’s use of civil lawsuits as an enforcement mechanism makes it more difficult to challenge and block the law in federal courts, legal experts have said.

The Center for Reproductive Rights said the Texas law effectively “creates a bounty hunting scheme that encourages the general public to bring costly and harassing lawsuits against anyone who they believe has violated the law.”

The Center’s president and CEO Nancy Northup wrote Monday that “In less than two days, Texas politicians will have effectively overturned Roe v. Wade” if the heartbeat bill isn’t blocked. “It’s cruel, unconscionable, and unlawful,” she argued.

“In less than two days, Texas politicians will have effectively overturned Roe v. Wade." - Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights

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Alexis McGill Johnson, Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s leader, told supporters Monday that “We’ve always said that we will do everything we can to fight for our patients and their access to abortion, and that’s why we’re asking the Supreme Court to step in and stop this abortion ban from taking effect.”

“The harm this law will cause will be insurmountable for far too many Texans, particularly Black, Latino, Indigenous people, those with low incomes, and Texans in rural areas who already face significant barriers to care,” Johnson said in a statement Monday.

According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, “Approximately 85 percent to 90 percent of people who obtain abortion in Texas are at least six weeks into pregnancy, meaning this law would prohibit nearly all abortions in the state.”

Kamyon Conner, Executive Director of the Texas Equal Access Fund, claimed Monday that “Anti-abortion politicians are empowering extremists to use lawsuits to harass and intimidate anyone who helps someone get an abortion.”

“These extremists are relentless,” she continued, “but we’re ready to fight so that we can continue helping each other, the way abortion funds always have.”

The full emergency request to the U.S. Supreme Court:
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Schaefer Edwards is a staff writer at the Houston Press who covers local and regional news. A lifelong Texan and adopted Houstonian, he loves NBA basketball and devouring Tex-Mex while his cat watches in envy.
Contact: Schaefer Edwards