(AUSTIN, Texas) — A law that took effect in Texas Wednesday outlaws abortions after six weeks of pregnancy.
The law effectively bars abortions in the America’s second most populous state, making it the most restrictive abortion law in the nation.
Here are six questions answered about Texas’ new law.
1. What does the law allow and not allow on abortions?
The law, Senate Bill 8, bans abortion once the rhythmic contracting of fetal cardiac tissue can be detected. That’s usually around six weeks, before some women may even know they’re pregnant. Most of the abortions performed nationwide are after six weeks of pregnancy.
There is an exception in the Texas law for abortions in cases of medical emergencies. The law does not make exceptions for pregnancies resulting from incest or rape.
When a person is six weeks pregnant, it typically means the embryo started developing about four weeks prior, based on the formula used to figure out when a person will give birth. People don’t often realize they are pregnant until after the six-week mark.
A fetal heartbeat is typically first detected five to six weeks after gestation.
2. Who will enforce the law?
The Texas law is unusual in that it prohibits the state from enforcing the ban but allows private citizens to bring civil suits against anyone who “aids or abets” an abortion — i.e. driving a person to an appointment or offering financial assistance — but not the patient herself.
People who successfully sue an abortion provider under this law could be awarded at least $10,000.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed the so-called “heartbeat ban” on May 19 and it went into effect on Sept. 1.
The heartbeat bill is now LAW in the Lone Star State.
This bill ensures the life of every unborn child with a heartbeat will be saved from the ravages of abortion.
— Greg Abbott (@GregAbbott_TX) May 19, 2021
3. Is the law here to stay or can it be blocked in court?
The law — which went into effect after the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, canceled a hearing on the law planned for Monday — is currently facing several legal challenges in lower courts.
Women’s health groups filed an emergency request with the U.S. Supreme Court to block the law while legal challenges continue. The court has not yet responded to the request.
The court has only been asked at this stage to decide whether or not to issue a temporary injunction on the law while lower-level court proceedings continue. Whatever the decision, legal experts cautioned that it will not have direct bearing on the precedent in Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that established a constitutional right to abortion, or abortion rights more broadly across the country.
The justices are likely to weigh in on the matter but do not operate on a fixed timeline.
Legal experts say the law’s enforcement mechanism — allowing private citizens to sue — has complicated the legal dispute before the Supreme Court because it is not clear who might bring a lawsuit and how widespread private legal action might be.
4. What will women who live in Texas do now for abortions?
Texas is home to nearly 14 million women who now face expensive and time-consuming options to obtain care, abortion rights advocates argue.
Abortion providers told the Supreme Court the law is expected to limit abortion access to 85% of patients across Texas.
“Patients will have to travel out of state – in the middle of a pandemic – to receive constitutionally guaranteed health care,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is leading the challenges to Texas’ law. “And many will not have the means to do so. It’s cruel, unconscionable and unlawful.”
Several clinics in Texas reported full waiting rooms up until the midnight deadline.
“Our clinic staff saw patients until 11:56 last night, just 3 minutes before the 6 week abortion ban went into effect in Texas,” Whole Women’s Health, a top abortion provider in Texas, posted on Twitter.
Abortion clinics in Texas will still remain open though, but only those in compliance with the law, according to abortion rights providers.
“We’re offering ultrasounds to women … if there is no fetal cardiac activity, we’re able to prepare them for abortions,” Amy Hagstrom Miller, CEO of Whole Women’s Health, which operates four clinics in Texas, told reporters Wednesday.
All 24 of Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas’ health centers also remain open, providing consultation and other services, including abortions, in compliance with the law, according to Vanessa Rodriguez, a call center manager for the organization.
5. Will other states follow Texas’ lead?
Eight other U.S. states have enacted similar six-week bans and all have been blocked by courts, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights, which claimed in May that Texas’ law intends to “harass, frighten, or bankrupt people who seek care and those who provide it.”
However, if the Texas law stands in federal court, it would be likely that other states trying to restrict abortion access will move to pass similar laws.
The Supreme Court is scheduled to rule when its next term begins in October on the state of Mississippi’s appeal of lower court decisions striking down a state ban on all abortions after 15 weeks, with exception of medical emergencies or severe fetal abnormality.
The case is seen as a major challenge to Roe v. Wade.
6. What happens when women don’t have access to abortions?
Women who carry unwanted pregnancies to full-term often face long-term physical and mental health complications, data show.
In Texas, the maternal mortality rate is 18.5 deaths per 100,000 live births, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Patients who are denied abortions also face a “large and persistent increase” in financial distress in the years after, according to a working paper published last year by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Looking at credit report data, researchers found that being denied an abortion increases the amount of debt 30 days or more past due by 78% and increases negative public records, such as bankruptcies and evictions, by 81%. The economic fallout appeared to be the worst for women who were forced to have a child when they were not prepared to, the data show.
ABC News’ Devin Dwyer and Alexandra Svokos contributed to this report.
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