Recently the American Supreme Court has approved 5 to 4 the controversial abortion law - Senate Bill 8 (SB 8) - which was signed in May 2020 by Greg Abbott, the Republican Governor of Texas. The law inaccurately labelled as the “heartbeat bill” came into effect on the 1st of September 2021 and has attracted many criticisms from President Joe Biden to doctors and advocacy groups. According to the detractors, this decision would disregard the landmark sentence Roe v. Wade of 1973 which elevated abortion as a constitutional right. Most recently, the Justice Department of the United States decided to sue the state of Texas on its decree. The lawsuit is led by Attorney General Merrick Garland who has commented on the Texan act saying that “(T)his kind of scheme to nullify the Constitution of the United States is one that all Americans, whatever their politics or party, should fear”. The new abortion rules will have a series of repercussions increasing health risks for both women and their babies and putting abortion clinics on the line.
The SB 8 does not allow women to have the opportunity of abortion after a cardiac activity is observed in the foetus, which normally can be detected at around six weeks of pregnancy. However, soon-to-be-mothers may not even be aware of their pregnancy at this early stage. The Texan law has specified that this rule is valid even in case of rape or incest, forcing women to go through pregnancies that may cause psychological consequences and distress. Governor Greg Abbott has argued that the bill will guarantee the safety of rape and incest victims, giving them around two weeks to terminate the pregnancy. In a Tweet, he proudly affirmed that “(S)tarting today, every unborn child with a heartbeat will be protected from the ravages of abortion" and that "Texas will always defend the right to life”. In response to this comment, Dr Bhavik Kumar, a physician at the Planned Parenthood Center for Choice in Houston, has underlined the Governor’s irresponsibility and commented that because of the decree the “(S)urvivors of rape and incest would be forced to grapple with the trauma and potentially decide to end a resulting pregnancy within days of the assault. Governor Abbott's comments about rape and rapists are insensitive, uninformed, and out of touch with the reality of survivors' experiences”.
Moreover, to force women to submit to its’ conditions, the SB 8 encourages any citizens to file a lawsuit against any individual who carries out, “aids” or “abets” an abortion. Through what Democrats have labelled as “bounties”, state residents will be rewarded up to $10.000 were they to succeed in suing an abortion procedure.
After the approval of the law, numerous were the criticisms. Most notably, the United States’ president himself reacted to the announcement and denounced the very rigid restrictions, saying that SB 8 “unleashes unconstitutional chaos and empowers self-anointed enforcers to have devastating impacts”. Backing this statement, Vice-President Kamala Harris has condemned the Texan decision and reminded that women’s choices on their reproductive rights and “their own bodies” were “non-negotiable”.
Moreover, several doctors and advocacy groups condemned the bill. In particular, Melissa Upreti, the Chair of the UN Working Group on discrimination against women and girls, was disappointed in the American state’s result saying that “(T)his new law will make abortion unsafe and deadly, and create a whole new set of risks for women and girls. It is profoundly discriminatory and violates a number of rights guaranteed under international law”. Moreover, she added that “(T)he law and the way it came about, through the refusal of the US Supreme Court to block it based on existing legal precedent, has not only taken Texas backwards, but in the eyes of the international community, it has taken the entire country backwards”. Indeed, according to international law, the thwarting of women’s reproductive rights could be conceived as degrading and inhumane treatment which could be interpreted as a type of torture.
As a result, experts are already warning of the dire consequences this legislation could have on Texan women, projecting that around 7 million women could be denied access to this health service. Due to the short timeframe women would have to interrupt their pregnancy (6 weeks), it is estimated that about 85% will not be able to access the service. With the implementation of the decree, several clinics that offered abortions procedures had to turn away patients. Furthermore, by revoking these reproductive rights, Texan residents will have no other choice than to travel out of state to seek help, increasing by 20 times the driving distance to get an abortion.
As the debate continues to surround the Texan abortion decree, analysts warn of a risk of copycat effect throughout the country. Indeed, at least seven other states – such as Arkansas, Florida, South Carolina, South Dakota, Kentucky, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Ohio – are considering introducing similar laws. Elisabeth Smith, the Director of State Policy and Advocacy at the Center for Reproductive Rights, has warned of the risk that the political bodies will begin implementing the law emulation in 2022 when the states assemblies will be adjourned and will start back the reunions. To face this challenge, the United States’ citizens seem to be increasingly involved in the discussion, with twice as many Democrats believing it is a top voting topic. Nonetheless, there is still hope that the negative repercussions Texas' Governor’s decision will have will refrain other political authorities to imitate this legislation.
Written by Cinzia Saro
Cinzia Saro is a columnist at DecipherGrey.