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‘Today, we mourn. Tomorrow, we fight’: Most restrictive abortion law in U.S. affects underserved Texas women

Texas women have protested pro-life bills several times this year—groups met at the Texas Capitol in January and May to oppose limiting legislation. (mirsasha/CC)

The most extreme abortion law since Roe v. Wade went into effect today in Texas, banning the procedure well before many women know they're pregnant. With no action from the U.S. Supreme Court, some Austinites are mourning a bill they thought would never pass.

The new law and 665 others were signed by Gov. Greg Abbott after the regular legislative session in May. Senate Bill 8 bans abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected at around six weeks, respectively. The bill offers no exceptions for rape or incest and also empowers private citizens to sue abortion providers or anyone who "aids or abets" the procedure.

A handful of other states have passed similar bills that were blocked by the courts but Texas' uniquely puts enforcement into the hands of the people. Lawsuits carry no criminal penalty but anyone who successfully sues a clinic provider could be awarded $10,000 or more.

While some organizations like the ACLU of Texas hoped the "Heartbeat Bill" would be struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, it failed to take action before going into effect today and minutes before midnight Wednesday, refused to block the law in a 5 to 4 vote. In another attempt to go around the bill, a Travis County judge issued a temporary restraining order against the legislation on Tuesday. However, the restraining order does not strike the bill down since it will be enforced through civil court.

Attempts to tear down Roe v. Wade protections in Texas are not new, Elizabeth Doyel, an Austin-based women's rights activist at political communications firm Superior Blue who previously worked at Planned Parenthood at Greater Texas. Major abortion providers in the city, like Planned Parenthood and Whole Women's Health clinics, are complying with the law and dramatically reducing procedures to only permitted medical emergencies.

"There are so many women in Texas that woke up today and didn't realize what had happened," Doyel said. "Today, we mourn. Tomorrow, we have to get up and we have to fight."

'I can't help you, I will be sued.'

(Steve Rhodes/CC)

Doyel, who lives in the Rosedale neighborhood, has never had an abortion and is past her childbearing years but SB8 still affects her—she says it sets back years of work she has done and takes an emotional toll. Doyel remembers helping a friend in high school who was raped get an abortion in rural Arkansas. Doyel was quickly disowned by her friend's parents afterward—something she said changed the direction of her life.

"It makes me scared for that young woman who exists somewhere in Texas, to know that she has no one to turn to because her friends will be like, 'I can't help you. I will be sued for at least $10,000,'" Doyel said, holding back tears. "The Texas Legislative Republicans have made average Texans vigilantes. That's part of it that I find just horrifying."

Doyel says she has been there for friends who needed abortions—and people who have died trying to get one—and worries about the future and safety of women, especially those who are underprivileged.

'A plane ticket is more than a lot of people can afford.'


The new bills won't stop abortions for Texans who have the means to travel—abortion is legal without any term restrictions in Colorado and in most circumstances in New Mexico and Nevada. Financially comfortable women will still be able to get an abortion if need be but the law will put much more strain on disadvantaged communities.

Doyel said she's been fighting the misconception that all abortions result from assault or unwanted pregnancy—restricting abortions puts the lives of women who can't carry to term, can't afford a child or are too young to raise a child, in danger.

"Texas is not a small state; it takes hours to get to an abortion provider in Colorado, or New Mexico, or Nevada or any of those type of places," Doyel said. "A plane ticket is more than a lot of people can afford. Abortion has always been available for wealthy, white women who need it. Abortion access for women in other groups: rural, poor, women of color, has not been possible and that's what Roe, opened up."

​'A moment of political theater'

Texas Right to Life, a nonprofit organization that opposes abortion in all forms, set up a "whistleblower" website to report violations of the new law.

"These lawsuits are not against the women," Texas Right to Life Legislative Director John Seago told NPR. "The lawsuits would be against the individuals making money off of the abortion, the abortion industry itself. So this is not 'spy on your neighbor and see if they're having an abortion.'"

With other issues in Texas' infrastructure, like the power grid that collapsed in February and Austin's growing affordability crisis, Doyel said she is sad, but not surprised, that Texas legislators have chosen not to target more pressing issues.

"A group of people in that pink building made a decision to take away a fundamental right for a woman, all in a moment of political theater," Doyel said. "Austin is a blueberry in a bowl of tomato soup as they say, but there's plenty of tomato soup in this town."

This story was updated Thursday morning to include that the U.S. Supreme Court voted to not block the law.

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