A new Texas abortion law that went to effect Wednesday is only the latest effort by a Republican-led state to curtail abortion rights, but what the Supreme Court does next could have sweeping implications nationwide.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the Supreme Court had yet to act on an emergency petition from Texas abortion clinics seeking to halt the law. The law, known as SB 8, bans abortion once cardiac activity is detected, as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, before most people know they are pregnant. Abortion providers in Texas told reporters Wednesday that they offered care up until minutes before the clock struck midnight. Abortion clinics, including Whole Woman's Health and Planned Parenthood, are now complying with the law.
The fight over access in Texas comes as the Supreme Court agreed to take up a Mississippi law that prohibits most abortions after 15 weeks. The case is a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that established the legal right to abortions nationwide.
Here’s a closer look at the strict new law in Texas and what might happen next:
When was the bill passed?
The bill was passed in May mostly along party lines, and Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, signed it into law on May 19.
What does the law say?
The law forbids abortions once cardiac activity is dedicated, usually around six weeks of pregnancy. Texas is the first state to successfully outlaw abortion at this point in pregnancies since Roe v. Wade. The law has no exceptions for cases involving rape or incest.
The ban will also be enforced through private citizens’ lawsuits against abortion providers, rather than through state government. It allows anyone, even someone outside Texas, to sue an abortion provider or anyone else who helped someone get an abortion after the six-week limit for at least $10,000 per defendant.
What’s the status of the law?
A group of providers and abortion rights advocates filed an emergency request Monday asking the Supreme Court to block the law. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused to block enforcement of the law before it took effect Wednesday.
In Monday’s filing, the group said that if the law were allowed to go into effect, it would “immediately and catastrophically reduce abortion access in Texas, barring care for at least 85 percent of Texas abortion patients.”
As of Wednesday afternoon, the Supreme Court hadn’t weighed in, and the law had taken effect.
What’s the impact?
About 85 percent to 90 percent of people who obtain abortions in Texas are at least six weeks into pregnancy, meaning the law would prohibit nearly all abortions in the state, according to Planned Parenthood and Whole Woman’s Health.
Pregnancies are measured by the first day of one’s last menstrual cycle and usually aren’t detectable until around four weeks later, meaning it’s highly likely that people seeking abortions wouldn’t know they needed them until after the six-week mark.
If most or all abortion care in Texas is shut down, the average one-way driving distance to a clinic would increase twentyfold, from 12 miles to 248 miles, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that studies reproductive health rights.
However, not everyone will be able to obtain abortions outside Texas because of financial or circumstantial challenges. The University of Texas at Austin's Texas Policy Evaluation Project estimates that under the law, 80 percent of Texans seeking abortions wouldn’t be able to obtain them in the state.
What happens next?
Abortion rights advocates and providers asked the Supreme Court to do one of two things Monday — issue an injunction halting the enforcement of the law, which would immediately allow abortions beyond six weeks of pregnancy to resume, or override the 5th Circuit’s pause on proceedings at the district court level. The second option would allow the district court to reschedule a hearing on whether to temporarily block the law.
However, if the Supreme Court remains mum, abortions will continue to be out of reach for many Texans.