Texas Bans Abortion at Six Weeks

Protest outside Texas Governor’s mansion against Senate Bill 8, which bans abortion at six weeks. (Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune)

Recently, Texas banned abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, with no exceptions for rape or incest. That is four weeks after fertilization and two weeks after a missed period. This bill is just one of many similar ones recently passed across the country.

The religious fundamentalist, anti-choice movement refers to these bills as so-called “fetal heartbeat” bills when, in fact, at six weeks there is neither a fetus nor a heart. At six weeks the embryo has no organs, is the size of a pea, and will not develop into a fetus for about another four weeks.

An abortion ban at six weeks is practically equivalent to a total ban on abortion. Not only do most women not yet know they are pregnant at six weeks, but even abortion providers prefer to wait past eight weeks for safety reasons. Also, at six weeks it is still nearly impossible to rule out what is called an “ectopic pregnancy” — when the embryo forms outside the uterus and can cause life-threatening bleeding. This complication impacts approximately one out of 100 pregnancies, and is the leading cause of maternal death due to blood loss in the first trimester.

The Texas bill goes even further. The bill allows anyone (in Texas or even outside the state) to file a lawsuit against any person in Texas who helps an abortion patient in any way. The person who files the suit can collect a minimum of $10,000 if they win while the defendant (who is being sued) can’t even collect legal fees if they win. This law could be applied to women who receive an abortion, any medical staff who perform or assist in the abortion, someone who gives a woman a ride to an abortion clinic — even the janitorial workers at a clinic. The law could also target those who give financial donations to abortion clinics, or women’s organizations, or those who speak out in favor of women’s reproductive rights. This provision would simply make it easier to intimidate abortion providers, women’s rights activists, and put extra pressure on clinics to shut down.

The Texas bill is supposed to take effect in September. Part or all of it is likely to be challenged in federal court, and be decided ultimately by the Supreme Court. Many of these bills are often thrown out by the courts because they count as an effective ban on abortion. The 1973 Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision sets a clear precedent that abortion bans are unconstitutional when they are “pre-viability.” A “viable” fetus has been defined by Roe v Wade as a fetus that can survive outside the uterus after birth. Clearly, a six-week old embryo, the size of pea, with no organs, cannot survive outside the uterus. So, it is very unlikely that these bills will be able to get around federal appeal – but they might.

Meanwhile, bills like this one keep getting passed throughout the country. Politicians use them like trophies to rally their religious conservative voters. Religious fundamentalist groups use them to recruit to their organizations. And whether they are ultimately upheld or not, in the meantime women face increased difficulty getting access to abortion services, and more and more clinics shut down under the mounting pressure.

Many women continue to look to the Democratic party to put a stop to these ongoing attacks on women’s reproductive rights. But the Democrats continue to offer nothing but lip service. When movements erupted against these attacks during the Trump administration, Democrats got on stage and told women that the best they could do was vote to elect Democrats. Meanwhile, Joe Biden has been a lifelong supporter of the Hyde Amendment, which bans the use of federal money to pay for abortion services for low-income women who qualify for Medicaid. Before being elected, Biden promised he would reconsider the Hyde Amendment — hoping it would get him some extra votes — but since being elected, he has done nothing on this issue.

Recent movements in Poland, Ireland, and Argentina have shown that women can’t afford to wait for the courts to decide. Years of organizing and massive mobilizations have been effective in pressuring the government to increase access to abortion.

Likewise, in this country, we cannot leave the fate of women and their bodies up to the whims of a handful of life-time appointees who sit on the Supreme Court. We can’t afford to wait for a Supreme Court decision when access to abortion services is already disappearing. We cannot accept that the rights of women will be determined by the legislatures and courts of a system that is run in the interests of big banks and corporations.

The defense of women’s rights — along with the rights of all people oppressed by this system — will be determined by the decisions of ordinary people to organize and stand up to these attacks. This is the only thing that has been decisive in the past, and it is all that matters going forward.

Our fate is in our hands — not in their courts.