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Texas This Week: KUT's Ashley Lopez discusses impact of Texas Heartbeat Act

This week, the Texas Heartbeat Act went into effect, banning abortions once fetal cardiac activity is detected.

AUSTIN, Texas — In this week's edition of Texas This Week, Ashley Lopez, Senior Reporter for KUT, joins KVUE's Ashley Goudeau to discuss the impacts of the Texas Heartbeat Act. 

Three Things To Know In TX Politics

1. Second special session of TX Legislature ends   

With three days to spare, the Texas Senate and House ended their work in the second special session Thursday night. Lawmakers voted to send 14 bills and one joint resolution, letting voters decide on an amendment to the state constitution, to Gov. Greg Abbott's desk. Perhaps most importantly, a bill restoring funding to the legislature passed so Capitol staffers will continue to get paid and have health insurance. And to the dismay of the Democrats, so did the Republican election reform bill. While the work at the Capitol is done, it's only for a short while – a third special session is coming. Texas lawmakers have to redraw political maps for the upcoming election. For the Senate, that committee work continues Tuesday, the House committee on redistricting meets Wednesday.


2. Lawmakers pass election reform bill

Texas lawmakers passed the hotly-debated, Republican election reform bill. The 76 pages of Senate Bill 1 make several changes to Texas' election code. The most-debated aspects of the bill are provisions that ban 24-hour voting, ban drive thru voting, require people who assist voters to sign affidavits, giving partisan poll watchers "free movement" in the polls and making it illegal for local election officials to send out mail-in ballot applications unless a voter requests one. Republicans say this makes it easier to vote and harder to cheat. Democrats say it just makes it harder to vote, which is why they broke quorum during the regular and both special sessions to try to kill the bill. But with no action from the U.S. Senate and a threat from the governor to call a string of special sessions until the bill passed, the Democrats returned and the Republicans, who control state government, passed their bill. 


3. New Texas laws go into effect

On Wednesday, more than 600 new laws went into effect, including several controversial measures. Now, anyone who legally owns a handgun can carry it openly in public in the Lone Star State, thanks to House Bill 1927, and doctors are banned from performing abortions once fetal cardiac activity is detected – which is typically around six weeks – before most women know they are pregnant. 


Ashley Lopez, KUT Senior Reporter, discusses Texas Heartbeat Act

The Texas Heartbeat Act is the most restrictive abortion law in the country. The only exception is for a woman having a medical emergency that threatens her life. Survivors of rape or incest don't qualify. Rather than creating a criminal penalty, the law is enforced through civil lawsuits. Anyone, other than the person who impregnates a woman through rape or incest, can sue the person or people who perform, attempts to perform or helps a woman get an abortion. KUT Senior Reporter on Health Care and Politics Ashley Lopez joined KVUE's Ashley Goudeau to discuss the new law.

Ashley Goudeau: The language in the Heartbeat Act is not unique to Texas. In fact, the base language comes from a group called Faith2Action, whose mission is to ban abortion through legislation on the state level rather than a national level. Ten other states passed this legislation, but and this is a very big but -- Texas is the only state that is now enforcing this as law. Explain to us why that is, what's different in the Texas bill. 

Ashley Lopez:  "Well, the reason Texas is able to enforce its law is because their version, Texas' version of the law, is very different in one very big way, which is the enforcement side of the law. Usually when states pass abortion bans, a Texas, a state legislature will pass a law and ask the state to enforce it. So state agencies will act as the enforcer. In this case, Texas decided, well, the state legislature decided, to make private citizens the enforcers. So basically anyone. Anyone, even outside of Texas, could sue a provider or someone who "aides and abets," is the very vague language, in the process of someone obtaining an abortion after the six week period, the ban set in place. So the reason why it was created that way, you know, anti-abortion groups here have told me, is because they were hopeful this new sort of legal framework would make it harder to block in the courts because it's usually you sue the state to stop or to not enforce a restriction that was put in place. But in this case, it's really hard. It's been very hard for abortion providers to figure out who to sue in this case, like who is the appropriate person as they're seeking injunctive relief in court. So this is why Texas currently is the only state enforcing such a ban."

Goudeau: There was some hope among women's health advocates that the U.S. Supreme Court would step in and grant an emergency request to stop the law from going into effect. That didn't happen. 

Lopez: "Right. So abortion providers had tried to go through the usual federal court system to get an injunction on the law. But there was some trouble, the 5th Circuit and a lower court. And eventually they just sent in an emergency request straight to the Supreme Court. And the Supreme Court after some delay said we're not stepping in on this case. And, you know, from what I can tell on the ruling, it had to do with what we were kind of talking about. You know, this is a kind of weird legal situation. They don't think the abortion providers in those groups did a good job of pointing to who they should appeal to or stop from enforcing the law, I should say, like who they should be suing. So, I mean, it seems like in the, in the, in the ruling from the Supreme Court, even the Supreme Court is unsatisfied with how this lawsuit has moved through the legal system. And so, I mean, this doesn't mean that the Supreme Court can't take this up again. It seems almost inevitable they will. But for now, the law remains in place."

Goudeau: You know, the bill going into effect on Wednesday left abortion providers scrambling on Tuesday to offer the service to women who wanted it. You talked with some of these providers. Tell us what you learned.  

Lopez: "Well, that was a tough night for providers. Apparently, they really tried to help as many people as possible in the waning hours before that went into effect. I think the, Whole Women's Health said the last abortion provided in their network of clinics was at 11:56 p.m. the night before the abortion ban went into place in Fort Worth, Texas. So this was, you know, a very frantic, semi-chaotic situation right before the abortion ban went into place, because historically speaking, usually courts do intervene when an abortion ban flies in the face of Roe v. Wade like this, they usually are not allowed to enforce such law, so this was a very confusing and unprecedented situation for many providers."

Goudeau: Are these providers concerned about what women who want abortions, Because we know that that desire is not going to go away just because of a new law, so are they concerned about what's going to happen to women who are seeking abortions in the future?  

Lopez: "Very concerned. I mean, I think that is the overwhelming thing I'm hearing from abortion providers is their concern about women who woke up on Wednesday morning with fewer rights than other women across the country. You know, not a lot of women find out they're pregnant until after six weeks into a pregnancy. That is a very narrow amount of people who abortion providers can serve now. And it's not like fewer women all of a sudden are going to need abortions. So what's going to happen is a lot of women are going to be forced to carry out a pregnancy they don't want or they're going to be forced to go out of state. And since, you know, we're in Texas, anyone who lives here knows driving out of state, going out of state is not cheap. And if you're driving, it's not short. So, and depending where you live, this could be amount to hours and hours of driving and a lot of costs. And if you don't have the money for that, then you're kind of out of luck. And so that's kind of where women are finding themselves now and abortion providers are very concerned. Another option is self managed abortions, which can be safe in some cases. But, you know, there's a reason why you want to have when you have any sort of medical procedure, you want to have a doctor around. Sometimes things, you know, require some assistance. But, you know, it's kind of like the situation we're in as long as this this law is in effect."

Goudeau: I want to talk a bit more about the lawsuit enforcement portion of the law. You know, it's pretty broad. Almost anyone can sue not only the doctor or the medical staff that perform the abortion once there is cardiac activity, but also anyone who aides a woman who is trying to get an abortion. Talk to us about the implications that has on a wide range of people.  

Lopez: "I mean, that is what's really hard about working in staff, even, in an abortion clinic right now. If you're someone who simply holds a clipboard, you know, has any role in this, like you are presumably liable here if someone gets an abortion after six weeks. Now, I should clarify, abortion clinics have said they will not be providing abortions once there is a fetal cardiac activity. They are in compliance. They say they're in compliance with the law. But, you know, it does -- all that needs to happen is someone needs to allege that there was a violation of the ban for someone to have to deal with legal troubles. And that includes so many people. I mean, I talked to social workers, like this is a group of people who's also unknowingly put in now the crosshairs of a law like this. For example, rape crisis counselors, they have to, you know as part of their job, field questions about a woman's options after a sexual assault and abortion does come up. And right now they're weighing, you know, do I do my job, answer questions and help someone with their options or do I make sure I don't run afoul of this law? It's very broad. And I think some people are operating with the, like under the, I guess, under the framework that they would be liable here and others are saying, 'I'm going to follow what it is in my ethical code in and sort of leave it at that and just let the chips fall where they may.'"

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have voiced strong opposition to the new law, calling it a violation of Roe v. Wade. The President has instructed his administration to see what the federal government can do to give Texas women access to the medical procedure. 

RELATED: President Biden pledges to launch investigative effort in response to SCOTUS ruling on Texas abortion ban


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