How the Texas abortion ‘heartbeat bill’ works: Yahoo News Explains

This week, Texas adopted an unprecedented new law that would ban the vast majority of abortions perfomed in the state. The “heartbeat bill” mimics similar, unsuccessful attempts by other states to prohibit abortions after cardiac activity can be detected — typically about six weeks into gestation, before most women are aware of the pregnancy. What makes the Texas law unique is that the state itself will not directly enforce it, instead allowing private citizens to bring lawsuits against those they accuse of aiding and abetting illegal procedures. Lawrence O. Gostin, University Professor at Georgetown University and director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, explains how the new bill works and why he believes the Supreme Court must reverse course and overturn the law.

Video Transcript

The Texas law banning most abortions in the state is now in effect.

- The Supreme Court, for now, declining to block it, President Biden blasting the decision as an assault on women's rights.

JEN PSAKI: I know you've never faced those choices, nor have you ever been pregnant. But for women out there who have faced those choices, this is an incredibly difficult thing.

LAWRENCE O. GOSTIN: In the United States, there are about 12 so-called fetal heartbeat laws that ban abortion after cardiac activity can be detected, typically around six weeks. The issue is, is that most women-- the vast majority-- won't even know they're pregnant by then. Now what makes the Texas law so unique, it's the only one that's ever been allowed to go into effect.

ALEXIS MCGILL JOHNSON: Texas has literally turned back the clock 50 years.

ALAN DERSHOWITZ: Well, I think it's so unconstitutional, I don't even know where to begin.

- What we're seeing in Texas is, frankly, chaos.

LAWRENCE O. GOSTIN: All the other laws have been blocked by federal courts because they clearly violate "Roe v. Wade." The Texas law is unlike all other laws that you know about. With all other laws, the state itself enforces it through the police or civil fines or whatever it might be. But here, the state has given over enforcement of its own law to anybody in the state of Texas.

- Part of what makes this law so unique is that it deputizes private citizens to sue anyone who aids and abets an unlawful abortion, from doctors who perform them to drivers who take women to the clinic. Those citizens could then collect a bounty of at least $10,000.

LAWRENCE O. GOSTIN: You know from the old Wild West, that when you put a bounty on the head of somebody, there are a lot of people-- a lot of zealots, crackpots, and others-- that are going to take a shot at them and shoot them. This is the same thing. This is kind of an open invitation to destroy people's lives by bringing lawsuits.

It doesn't have to be a well-founded lawsuit. Just frivolous lawsuits that just make the person's life miserable. And so basically, it puts a bounty out on the heads of good, decent people who are trying to help women.

JOE BIDEN: It sort of creates a vigilante system.

LAWRENCE O. GOSTIN: If the State wants to violate the Constitution-- and it's clearly doing that, at least under current Supreme Court doctrine-- they ought to have the guts to enforce that themselves, and not to hire contractors of ordinary citizens to enforce Texas law. Next term's Supreme Court is going to hear a case from Mississippi, which is another fetal heartbeat law. And we'll know then how the court is going to proceed.

The Supreme Court has to put an end to this. Because the truth is, is that any woman of means is going to just get on a plane or hire a driver and go to another state and get the abortion. This is going to affect only, literally only, poor women, women of color, women who live in rural areas. In other words, the state of Texas and other states around the country are targeting the most disadvantaged, the most vulnerable, the poorest women in America. And that's just sad.