By LILY MECKEL
On September 1st, the state of Texas enacted a law titled SB8, also known as the ‘Heartbeat Act’, which bans abortions that are undertaken after six weeks. This law follows other attempted bans in Republican-led states, such as Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio, and Mississippi. SB8 is one of the most restrictive abortion laws that has been able to take effect in the United States, and is one of many attacks on abortion rights in recent years. This has sparked outrage across the country, leading to protests calling for a stop to attacks on women’s rights and bodies.
Women gathered in cities throughout the country at the start of October to protest against this bill, which was put into effect a month ago, then temporarily blocked after a legal challenge by the Biden Administration, but reinstated again by a federal appeals court last week. The Texas ‘Heartbeat Act’ criminalises the act of getting an abortion after six weeks, which is allegedly when the first heartbeat is detected, a measure that has been deemed misleading by scientists.
Given that six weeks is only two weeks after a missed period, a regular occurrence given that periods can be delayed or early, it bans abortions before most women know they are pregnant. In fact, Reuters reports that between 85% and 90% of abortions take place after the six-week mark. This makes it effectively impossible to get an abortion.
The law also allows private citizens anywhere in the country to sue anyone involved in the abortion procedure for $10,000, whether it is the doctor, the patient, or anyone who facilitates the abortion, even in cases of rape or incest. Thus, this bill acts as a near-total ban of abortions in the second most populous state in the country, attacking women’s reproductive rights in unprecedented and dangerous ways.
However, this bill isn’t the first time Republican states have attacked abortion rights. It has been consistently attempted over the years, especially since Trump’s presidency. According to Planned Parenthood, Mississippi, Kentucky, Ohio, and Georgia all signed such bills into law in 2019, which were upheld by legal challenges. Many more states, including Florida, Louisiana, Missouri, South Carolina, and Tennessee, to name a few, are considering such a ban, all of which are Republican majority states. Arkansas and Oklahoma have already almost entirely banned abortions. The Republican party has consistently been the enabler for anti-abortion legislation by pandering to their religious conservative base, mostly consisting of white evangelicals, in order to stay in power, putting women’s lives in danger for the sake of political relevance.
Upon first glance, this law is clearly unconstitutional. The landmark Supreme Court ruling ‘Roe v. Wade’ (1973) legalises abortion in all 50 states. So how can Texas enact a law that so blatantly defies this ruling?
The answer lies in the formulation of the law itself. Instead of directly prosecuting abortion providers or patients, private citizens can sue. This puts the power in the hands of the people, rather than state officials, meaning the state cannot be accused of preventing abortions.
Additionally, the highest court in the land, the Supreme Court, which has the ultimate authority when laws are challenged and appealed, did not take action to stop the bill from being passed.
The lack of action by the Supreme Court can be linked to the court’s conservative majority of 6 to 3 since Donald Trump’s appointment of Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett. This sets a dangerous precedent for any similar laws that may be put into place in the future. It could even signify a repeal of 'Roe v. Wade' when the Supreme Court hears a case on a total abortion ban after 15 weeks in Mississippi in the next court term, which begun this Monday. Without 'Roe v. Wade', it would be up to every state individually whether they want to legalise abortions. In the event of this scenario, Planned Parenthood states that “one-third of all women of reproductive age in America could lose the ability to access abortion in their state”, which equates to around 25 million women, with women of colour and women in poverty affected the most.
Women’s reproductive rights in the US are in danger. Republican lawmakers and conservative judge appointments in federal courts across the nation, and the Supreme Court, are attacking a constitutional right, and therefore attacking the democratic foundation of the country. Abortions will continue to happen, whether legal or not, and criminalising them makes it more dangerous for women to get one. The bill disproportionately disadvantages women of colour, who face barriers such as less access to contraception and income inequality created by systemic racism, and women in poverty who cannot afford the cost of getting an out of state abortion, which further deepens inequalities in an already unequal society.
As the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a pioneer for reproductive and women’s rights, stated in a 1993 Senate hearing: “The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a woman’s life, to her well-being, and dignity. It is a decision she must make for herself. When the government controls that decision for her, she is being treated as less than a full adult human responsible for her own choices.”
To summarise, my body, my choice.
Images 1, 2, 3: Unsplash (Gayatri Malhotra)