Texas Governor Signs Fetal Heartbeat Law That Leaves Enforcement to Private Citizens

Texas Governor Greg Abbott speaks at the annual National Rifle Association convention in Dallas, Texas, May 4, 2018. (REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)

Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill on Wednesday barring abortions after the detection of a fetal heartbeat — as early as six weeks — with the exception of medical emergencies.

“Our creator endowed us with the right to life and yet millions of children lose their right to life every year because of abortion,” Abbott, a Republican, said during a bill signing ceremony. 

He added that the Legislature “worked together on a bipartisan basis to pass a bill that I’m about to sign that ensures that the life of every unborn child who has a heartbeat will be saved from the ravages of abortion.”

While more than a dozen other states have passed “heartbeat” bills, Texas on Wednesday became the largest state to do so.

However, the law, which takes effect in September, is first-of-its-kind in that it includes a unique provision that leaves enforcement to private citizens through lawsuits against abortion providers or anyone who helps a woman get an abortion.

The person would not have to be connected to the woman who had an abortion or to a provider — or even live in Texas— to file a lawsuit seeking financial damages of up to $10,000 per defendant.

The provision aims to avoid legal challenges that have slowed the implementation of abortion restrictions. Abortion providers would typically file suit against the state to prevent such a law from taking effect, but as there is no state official enforcing the bill, there is no one to sue, proponents say.

“It’s a very unique law and it’s a very clever law,” Josh Blackman, a constitutional law professor at South Texas College of Law Houston, told the Texas Tribune. “Planned Parenthood can’t go to court and sue Attorney General [Ken] Paxton like they usually would because he has no role in enforcing the statute. They have to basically sit and wait to be sued.”

Currently, Texas prohibits most abortions after 20 weeks and chemical abortions after ten weeks. More than 56,600 abortions were performed on Texas residents in 2019, state statistics show.

According to the CDC, more than 90 percent of abortions are performed in the first 13 weeks of a woman’s pregnancy.

The Texas bill was signed into law days after the Supreme Court announced in an order on Monday that it would hear a major abortion case that will give the justices an opportunity to reconsider the precedent set by the landmark Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey decisions.

The Court said it will take a case involving a Mississippi law passed in 2018 that bans abortions after 15 weeks with limited exceptions.

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