Texas Governor Greg Abbott on Wednesday signed into a law a bill outlawing abortion as early as six weeks into pregnancy, joining at least a dozen other states that have enacted measures designed to prohibit the procedure early in a patient's pregnancy. But unlike the other so-called "heartbeat" bills, Texas's has a provision that would allow private citizens to file civil lawsuits against doctors, staff, or even a patient's family or friends who "aid and abet" in such procedures.
"Our Creator endowed us with the right to life," Abbott said at Wednesday's bill signing. "And yet millions of children lose their right to life every year because of abortion. In Texas, we work to save those lives."
Abortion rights groups say the law is unconstitutional and in violation of Roe v. Wade, which prohibits states from banning abortion before fetal viability, which generally happens around 24 weeks into a pregnancy. In a statement to CBS News, Planned Parenthood president Alexis McGill Johnson said the Texas bill was among the "most extreme in the country."
"It is appalling that in defiance of public opinion and public health, state politicians remain committed to controlling our bodies," Johnson said. "The goal is clear: to relentlessly attack our reproductive rights until abortion is a right in name only."
Unlike other state laws that seek to outlaw abortion, the legislation, Senate Bill 8, doesn't task the state of Texas with enforcing the ban. Instead, according to the bill's text, it creates a "private civil right of action" that allows anyone to bring civil action against medical professional who performs an abortion in violation of the law as well as those who "knowingly engages in conduct that aids or abets the performance or inducement of an abortion, including paying for or reimbursing the costs of an abortion through insurance or otherwise."
Critics of the law say that could include clinic staff, counselors or clergy who offered guidance, a friend who drove the patient to their appointment, or even a parent who paid for the procedure.
"This bill essentially opens the floodgates to allow anyone who is hostile to abortion to sue doctors and clinics, consuming their resources and forcing them to shut down," said Nancy Northup, the head of the Center for Reproductive Rights, a law firm that challenges anti-abortion regulations globally. "We will pursue all legal options to prevent this law from taking effect."
Those found in violation of the law could face penalties starting at $10,000 per instance. An amendment added last week bars someone who impregnated the patient through rape or incest from suing, but did not clarify that family members or friends of that individual would be barred as well. Under the law, patients themselves cannot be sued.
"The Texas Heartbeat Act is the strongest Pro-Life bill passed by the Legislature since Roe v. Wade," said Rebecca Parma, the senior legislative associate at Texas Right to Life, an anti-abortion rights group, in an interview with The Associated Press.
The law is slated to take effect this September.
Texas's "heartbeat" ban comes amid a particularly active state legislative session for the issue nationwide, experts say. According to an analysis by the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights, more than 500 abortion restrictions, including 146 bans, had been introduced by state lawmakers as of April 30. Among those, 61 have been signed into law.
"The year 2021 is well on its way to being a defining one in abortion rights history," said Lauren Cross and Elizabeth Nash, the authors of the report.
Many of those measures have been blocked by federal courts, but their supporters say that's the point. Buoyed by a conservative majority at the Supreme Court, states have passed dozens of anti-abortion restrictions with the hopes that they will reach the high court and give the justices an opportunity to overturn Roe v. Wade.