Gov. Greg Abbott signs into law one of nation’s strictest abortion measures, banning procedure as early as six weeks into a pregnancy
Gov. Greg Abbott signed into a law Wednesday a measure that would prohibit in Texas abortions as early as six weeks — before some women know they are pregnant — and open the door for almost any private citizen to sue abortion providers and others.
The signing of the bill opens a new frontier in the battle over abortion restrictions as first-of-its-kind legal provisions — intended to make the law harder to block — are poised to be tested in the courts.
Abortion rights advocates have promised to challenge the new law, which they consider one of the most extreme across the country and the strictest in Texas since the landmark Roe v. Wade decision.
The law takes effect in September.
The Legislature "worked together on a bipartisan basis to pass a bill that I'm about to sign that ensures that the life of every unborn child who has a heartbeat will be saved from the ravages of abortion," Abbott said, in a livestream posted on Facebook.
The governor's signature comes just after the U.S. Supreme Court said it would hear a case concerning a Mississippi law that would ban most abortions after 15 weeks, and which could lead to new limits on abortion rights. It is the first major abortion case heard before the court's newly expanded conservative majority, and could have far-reaching effects for Texas, where a pending bill would outlaw nearly all abortions if the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade.
Senate Bill 8 was a top priority for Republican lawmakers, nearly all of whom signed on as an author or sponsor of the measure.
The bill bans abortions after a fetal heartbeat has been detected. It includes cases where the woman was impregnated as a result of rape or incest. There is an exception for medical emergencies.
Similar "heartbeat" bills have been passed by other states and held up by the courts, but Texas' version has a twist.
Instead of having the government enforce the law, the bill turns the reins over to private citizens — who are newly empowered to sue abortion providers or anyone who helps someone get an abortion after a fetal heartbeat has been detected. The person would not have to be connected to someone who had an abortion or to a provider to sue.
Proponents of the new law hope to get around the legal challenges that have tied up abortion restrictions in the courts for years. While abortion providers typically sue the state to stop a restrictive abortion law from taking effect, there's no state official enforcing Senate Bill 8 — so there's no one to sue, the bill's proponents say.
"It's a very unique law and it's a very clever law," said Josh Blackman, a constitutional law professor at South Texas College of Law Houston. "Planned Parenthood can't go to court and sue Attorney General [Ken] Paxton like they usually would because he has no role in enforcing the statute. They have to basically sit and wait to be sued."
Legal experts have been divided on the strategy, and abortion rights advocates have said they plan to fight regardless.
Elisabeth Smith, chief counsel at the Center for Reproductive Rights, which has represented abortion providers who have sued Texas, said it and other abortion rights organizations are "not going to let this six-week ban go unchallenged."
Drucilla Tigner, policy and advocacy strategist of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said the "governor's swipe of a pen can't change the Constitution."
While the law is most extreme abortion ban in the country, "abortion is both legal in Texas and supported by the majority of Texans," Tigner said.
Abortion rights advocates and lawyers say the new law would allow for a cascade of lawsuits against abortion providers, that would sap their time and money even if they ultimately won in court.
Family members, abortion funds, rape crisis counselors and other medical professionals could be open to lawsuits, under the broad language in the bill, according to legal experts and physicians who opposed the measure. People who sued would be awarded at least $10,000, as well as costs for attorney's fees, if they won.
"Every citizen is now a private attorney general," Blackman said. "You can have random people who are against abortion start suing tomorrow."
John Seago, with Texas Right to Life, an anti-abortion organization that supported the bill, said
he doubted there would be an "overwhelming number of cases on day one."
Lawsuits might be filed by anti-abortion activists who learned through talking to the woman that she got an abortion after six weeks.
"There's going to be a lot of different [fact] patterns that could lead to the case," he said. But the bill isn't "throwing out the typical way that the judicial system works — there's still going to be a judge, there's still going to be depositions, there's going to be a high bar" before fees are awarded.
The ultimate goal, he said, is to incentivize abortion providers to comply with the law instead of fighting it in court.
They can "easily avoid all of that," Seago said. "Have a public statement. Put it on their website that they're not scheduling appointments after six weeks."
The bill does not allow rapists to sue but abortion rights advocates say the wording offers flimsy protection as most rapes and sexual assaults aren't reported and don't result in a conviction.
Most abortions in Texas were already prohibited after about 20 weeks. Pill-induced abortions were barred at 10 weeks. The abortion provider must perform a sonogram on the woman 24 hours before the abortion and give them information about medical risks, abortion alternatives and assistance available to those who follow through with their pregnancy.
More than 56,600 abortions were performed on Texas residents in 2019, according to state statistics, most of them in the first trimester.
Proponents of the law celebrated its signing.
"The Legislature and Governor prioritized this historic legislation, and with his signature, approximately 50,000 precious human lives will be saved in Texas next year alone!" said Chelsey Youman, with Human Coalition Action, an anti-abortion organization.
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Officials are asking certain residents in Bastrop State Park to evacuate as crews work to put out a “very active fire” that is currently 0% contained.
The Texas A&M Forest Service has responded to help local fire departments with the Rolling Pines Fire at 100 Park Road 1A, which is consuming 300 acres. Residents of Pine Hill Drive, Pine Tree Loop, Linda Lane and Lisa Lane are being asked to evacuate.
Today’s Bastrop Rolling Pines Fire is burning along Power Plant Road towards Lake Bastrop South Shore. pic.twitter.com/YCvJkIAg1u
— BastropCntyTexas OEM (@BastropCntyOEM) January 18, 2022
Aviation resources have been called to assist.
According to the Bastrop County Office of Emergency Management, the wildfire sparked during a prescribed burn that took place today, despite wildfire warnings. Park Road 1C from Harmon Road to Park Road 1A had been closed for the prescribed burn.
The blaze is in the same location as the Bastrop Complex Fire of 2011, which burned for 55 days, killing two people, destroying 34,000 acres and around 1,700 homes and buildings. The fire, which started in 2011, became the most destructive wildfire in Texas at the time.
A hotbed for fires, the Hidden Pines Fire started at the same location in 2015, destroying 4,600 acres and 64 structures.
Some road closures have been put in place at State Highway 21 South Shore Lake Bastrop and East State Highway 21.
This is a developing story and will be updated as information becomes available.
After months of record-setting periods for Austin real estate, the Austin Board of Realtors announced Tuesday that the metro's housing market accounted for over $23 billion of economic activity in 2021, making it the biggest year yet for both home sales and median home prices in the metro.
The Austin-Round Rock MSA saw 41,316 homes sold in 2021, 2.5% more than a record-setting 2020. Median home prices skyrocketed as well, rising 30.8% from 2020 to $450,000. The housing market also saw unprecedented impact on Austin's economy, with sales dollar volume jumping to over $23.38 billion, and more homes hit the market in 2021 than any previous year, increasing by 5.9% to 46,449 total homes listed.
(Austin Board of Realtors)
As many recent Austin homebuyers have experienced firsthand, Austin Board of Realtors 2022 President Cord Shiflet said 2021 was the most "exciting, complicated, fast-paced and record-setting housing market" in Austin's history.
Shiflet dubbed the market as "complicated" for a reason—Austin became a case study on supply and demand in 2021, with demand far outpacing the number of active listings, which dropped by 48.2% to 2,348 homes in 2021.
The metro ended the year with 0.6 months of inventory, a far cry from a "healthy" six-month supply, and houses were snatched at breakneck speeds, spending 25 fewer days on the market when compared to 2020. The average home was on the market for 20 days.
But low inventory is more due to high demand than a stagnant homebuilding market, Mark Sprague, Independence Title's state director of information capital, said in the report.
“In 2021, the record number of homes sold were demand-driven transactions and that demand was influenced greatly by companies continuing to target the region for job creation and expansion," Sprague said. "Even though more homes are being built, listed and sold than ever before, our region is still nowhere close to having a comfortable amount of supply to meet the demand, which is why home prices continue to rise steadily.”
Over 23,000 jobs have been promised by companies across the metro as of December 2021, breaking the 2020 record, according to Opportunity Austin, the economic development arm of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. With an influx of major factories and offices, including Tesla's Giga Texas, Samsung's Taylor plant and a planned 33-floor Facebook office, Sprague said the region's booming market paired with a struggling inventory and supply chain issues could be a double-edged sword in 2022.
"In short, 2022 will see a robust market for home sales and property values, but the region must do more to address inventory, ” Sprague said.
Shiflet recommended that potential homebuyers make a decision ahead of predicted increases in interest rates and home prices and said that he hopes local politicians will continue to prioritize affordable housing in the election year.
Still, Shiflet said a record-breaking housing market reflects Austin's growing reputation as a hub for talent, tech jobs and a good quality of life.
"With all the new jobs across the region from exciting companies like Tesla and Samsung, Austin was put on the world’s stage and captured the hearts and attention of so many," Shiflet said. "We are lucky to call Austin our home when it has so much to offer from a great quality of life to a wonderful destination for innovation and opportunity.”
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