Earlier today one of the most extreme abortion laws in the U.S. since the landmark Roe v. Wade decision of 1973 went into effect after the Supreme Court failed to act on a request to block it. Texas’s Senate Bill 8, or S.B. 8, effectively bans abortions after six weeks for all but those in a life-threatening condition, making no exceptions in cases of rape or incest. It marks the latest chapter in an ongoing battle over reproductive rights within a state where abortion access is already severely limited.
While the ruling has much in common with other so-called heartbeat bills (restricting abortions after a fetal heartbeat has been detected), the significance of S.B. 8 lies in its legal intricacies, which prevent abortion providers from fighting back. Instead of relying on the government to enforce the law, private citizens are able to sue any organization, or even any individual, that has helped anyone to get an abortion, whether they know them personally or not. It also blocks abortion providers from suing the state, as they have typically done in the past after restrictive abortion laws went into effect. Thus, S.B. 8 has laid the groundwork for a legal Wild West that would all but force every abortion provider in the state to shut down immediately for fear of being overwhelmed with expensive ongoing courtroom battles. Many pro-life organizations are already launching tip lines where people seeking or who have undergone abortions can be reported to likeminded litigious vigilantes; and equally concerning is the broad array of people who could be targeted by these legal attacks. Beyond the organizations and physicians themselves, clinic nurses, abortion-fund workers, rape-crisis counselors, and even friends offering a car ride to an abortion clinic are at risk of being sued.
According to a study by the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive-rights organization, the decision is anticipated to change the average distance an abortion patient in Texas must travel from 12 miles to 248. (Texas already has among the highest number of abortion deserts—or cities where a patient must travel more than 100 miles for care—in the country.) As with most anti-abortion laws, it will disproportionately affect Black, Latinx, and lower-income patients, given the time and resources needed to travel out of state in order to find an abortion clinic. There is also the chance that it will force some women in the state to take matters into their own hands without medical oversight.
Another key element of the furor around S.B. 8 lies in the Supreme Court’s failure to act before the law took effect today. It offers a worrying insight into the future of abortion access in America and the much-discussed potential unraveling of Roe v. Wade. With the Supreme Court now holding a firmly conservative majority following the confirmations of justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett under President Trump, many fear its lack of action this week is a sign of things to come; and since the Supreme Court said in July that it would hear a case on a Mississippi law banning most abortions after 15 weeks later this year, other red states may look to adopt similar measures. Yet on the subject of whether this marks the start of a sea change for abortion policy in GOP-dominated states, experts have been largely reluctant to offer conclusive comment.
For information on how to petition against the law or to support organizations and abortion-fund groups that will help patients leave Texas in order to receive care, you can find resources here courtesy of the ACLU.
Originally Appeared on Vogue