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The Most Restrictive Abortion Law in the United States

No matter which side of the abortion debate you’re on, experts say it’s important to know the legal implications of the Texas Heartbeat Act.

By Mia Mercer ‘23

Since Roe v. Wade passed in 1973, Americans’ right to abortion has been protected against state action under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The state of  Texas is taking action to change that.

On Sept. 1, the Texas Legislature passed the Texas Heartbeat Act. The legislation prohibits most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy or after the detection of a fetal cardiac activity, making Texas home to the most restrictive abortion law in effect in the United States. 

Faculty from the College of Liberal Arts further explain the legal implications of this decision as well as the effects the law will have on women’s health in the state of Texas now and in the future using their research and expertise.

The Supreme Court refused to take action on a request to block the Texas Heartbeat Act in October. In doing so, abortion clinics throughout Texas have been forced to deny women access to safe abortions causing many women seeking such medical help to resort to other methods of terminating their pregnancy.  

“It’s important to understand the way the world works, which would of course include what happens when certain types of laws are passed,” department of economics professor Jason Lindo explained. “Understanding the effects of this law should be useful for anyone and everyone, no matter what side of the isle you are on. Ultimately, whether you might be saddened by the outcome or think it’s a positive thing, we should all hopefully want to know what the truth is because when we know how policies work and what they do, we are better informed to vote and support policies that are actually consistent with our own personal values.” 

According to Lindo, the Texas Heartbeat Act is the country’s most restrictive law because it leaves the state of Texas with virtually no access to abortion, putting Texas women  seeking abortion through a legal obstacle course that includes driving great distances to access abortions out of state. Although it is too early to tell how this law will affect the abortion rate, Lindo said we can look at Texas’ recent history with the passage of Texas House Bill 2 (HB2), which shut down nearly half of the clinics in the state, for an example of how the Texas Heartbeat Act may influence abortion rates.

“Historically, when access to abortion clinics is substantially impaired, including when people have to travel further to reach an abortion clinic, it substantially reduces the number who get abortions” Lindo shared. “Just to give you some numbers, having a clinic 25 miles away versus zero reduces the abortion rate by 10 percent. That’s a very large effect. There’s also evidence about mandatory waiting periods that require two trips to an abortion clinic (as opposed to one), also substantially affects abortion access. Based on a wealth of research that already exists on prior laws that have been passed, we can anticipate that this law is going to delay abortions and reduce the overall number.” 

Not only does this law affect the abortion rate, but it also affects women’s rights and health. 

“We have a constitutional right to abortion, but it’s being overturned through this particular law,” associate professor from the Department of Communication Tasha Dubriwny said. “There is a good deal of discourse coming from reproductive rights advocates to suggest that reproductive rights are human rights and abortion care is part of that spectrum. Denying women access to abortion is a form of gender discrimination. So a law like the one that has been offered up in Texas violates women’s fundamental human rights because it restricts their access to what is an important part of their reproductive healthcare.” 

According to Doctors Without Borders, unsafe abortion is a main cause of maternal death globally. It’s also one that is almost entirely preventable. When abortion access is restricted, women turn to unsafe means to end pregnancies. 

“There is substantial evidence that abortion is a very safe procedure,” Lindo said. “There is also clear evidence that childbirth or continuing a pregnancy entails risks for women, and

carrying a fetus to childbirth is something that involves more health risks than does an abortion.

There’s a lot of research on the effects of having children on long-term outcomes including educational attainment and financial circumstances. Those are additional things which may be important to pay attention to when we think of the effects of this law.”

Dubriwny also explained that the restrictions imposed by the Texas Heartbeat Act disproportionately affect women of color and women who are of lower socioeconomic status. 

“This bill amplifies already existing health disparities in terms of mental health and health overall in the state of Texas as well as across the nation,” Dubriwny said. “Looking at Texas specifically, we have a number of restrictions on abortion already in place. These make it difficult to have an abortion in the state to begin with. That difficulty will increase for all women of underrepresented groups and of lower socioeconomic status who may not have the resources to travel out of state to access abortion care.”

Despite the law being halted by a federal court judge on Oct. 6, Dubriwny said this is likely the first step in a long series of legal maneuvers and we can expect the state of Texas to appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Although this current ruling allows clinics to move forward with abortions past the cardiac activity mark, if the Fifth Court of Appeals reverses the federal judge’s ruling, the clinics and other participants who aided those seeking abortions could be sued under the law for their past acts since the federal judge has blocked the law’s enforcement, not overturned the law entirely.

“It’s important to note that from a legal standpoint, the law is problematic because of the precedent that it sets in terms of how to undermine constitutionally upheld rights,” Dubriwny shared. “It has made very real the stakes of current legal challenges to Roe v. Wade. This has made the possibility of a world without legal, safe, and accessible abortion care a reality, and I think making that reality clear has spurred forth a lot of necessary and productive conversations and hopefully made all of us more aware of the threats to women’s rights and reproductive autonomy.”