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Sept. 1 marked two years since Senate Bill 8 went into effect in Texas, also known as the Texas Heartbeat Bill. The law triggered a wave of abortion bans across the U.S. by banning all abortions after electrical activity in the embryo is detected, which can be as early as six weeks—before many people realize they are pregnant.
The law also turns ordinary citizens into “bounty hunters” by offering a $10,000 reward to anyone who sues another person for performing or aiding in an abortion after electrical activity is detected during a pregnancy.
“It was designed to get around Roe v. Wade by using private citizens as enforcers, thus ensuring that no public official could be sued,” said Jessie Hill, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University and the founding director of the Reproductive Rights Law Initiative at the School of Law.
SB 8 has made it nearly impossible for anyone to safely access abortion care in the state and has turned pregnant Texans into “reproductive refugees” who have to travel long distances to seek needed health care services in other states, Hill added. This isn’t always possible as many people can’t afford the procedure, transportation, overnight accommodations, child care, and work leaves.
This significantly affected Texans as SB8 completely transformed the state’s abortion landscape within mere weeks of passing. Under the restrictive law, abortions fell by 60% from August to September 2021.
Even before SB 8, health care providers and patients in Texas struggled with Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws, maternity care deserts in nearly half of its counties, and hospital closures, said Kavelle Christie, director of the Gender Equity and Health Justice Program at Community Catalyst, a national nonprofit working toward health equity and justice.
“SB 8 adds another layer to the barriers Texans must overcome to get the health care they need and deserve,” she added. “It is disingenuous for policymakers to claim they care about our nation’s health care outcomes and ongoing maternal health crisis and, in the same breath, spend well-needed resources to attempt to limit access to abortion care through unnecessary regulation and restrictions.”
Worse health outcomes for all
Along with banning abortion care, SB 8 has also worsened health outcomes for pregnant people.
“This unnecessary law has created a climate of fear and uncertainty for health care providers and individuals seeking abortion services in Texas, leading some to travel out of state, resort to unsafe alternatives, or have forced births,” Christie said.
Researchers at the University of Texas, Austin, and the University of California, San Francisco, recently found that pregnant patients with bleeding complications, ectopic pregnancies, and early miscarriages had worse outcomes because doctors were concerned that providing care would violate the law.
Researchers have also found that abortion bans are having a negative impact on maternal mortality as racial inequities in maternal health and pregnancy-related mortality increase. In Texas alone, discrimination contributed to 12% of pregnancy-related deaths, with Black women impacted most severely.
“The effects of forced pregnancy will likely be felt across generations and most acutely felt by people seeking abortion care that experience intersecting barriers—including structural racism, limited and strained financial resources, migrant status, or their status as a minor—that make accessing safe abortion incredibly difficult,” said Amy Moy, the co-CEO of Essential Access Health, an organization advocating for access to sexual and reproductive health services.
Multiple studies have shown that abortion bans disproportionately affect people of color and immigrants, who are more likely to live in abortion-banned states, lack the funds to travel to “abortion-haven” states, and forego abortion care due to the fear of being detained and deported.
The impact on Latinx Texans
Texas is home to one of the nation’s largest Latinx populations and the largest population of Latinx people impacted by abortion bans, with 2.9 million Latinx people of reproductive age affected. This demographic largely comprises immigrants, with The National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice’s fact sheet in partnership with The Center for Law and Social Policy showing that 39% percent of all Latinas living in the 26 states that have banned or are likely to ban abortion following the 2022 Supreme Court Dobbs decision were born outside of the U.S.
“For people without documentation in Texas, where U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents set up internal checkpoints along all major routes, traveling to another state for abortion care means risking family separation, detention, and deportation,” said Lupe M. Rodríguez, the executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice. “Fear of deportation and family separation has led to many Latinxs avoiding reproductive health care altogether.”
Eighty-one percent of Latinx voters support health coverage for the full range of pregnancy-related care, including abortion, yet according to the National Latina Institute fact sheet, 1 in 4 Latinx voters in the U.S. had a close family member or friend delay or avoid health care because of fear related to discriminatory immigration policies, and 1 in 5 said the same about reproductive health care.
“Many of the same people who want to further restrict access to abortion in Texas are also attacking the rights of immigrants,” Rodríguez said. “Our ability to make our own decisions about our bodies is restricted, our communities face hate and violence, our families are being separated, and our access to health care is limited.”
A wave of abortion bans
SB 8 has not been an isolated law only affecting Texas.
“SB 8 also set the stage for the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade a year later and emboldened states across the country to pass copycat legislation, serving as a catalyst for the current abortion access landscape,” Rodríguez said.
Several other states, including Arkansas, Florida, South Dakota, Idaho, Indiana, and Oklahoma, discussed similar policies after SB 8 went into effect in Texas, and, as of Sept. 1, 24 states completely ban or significantly restrict access to abortion.
“Out-of-touch politicians across the country are rushing to ban abortion for even more Americans,” Rodríguez said.
Anti-abortion policies also seem to be getting tighter in states already restricting it.
“Immediately following the decimation of Roe, a second law was enacted in Texas: the so-called ‘Human Life Protection Act,’ [which] unequivocally makes performing an abortion from the moment of fertilization a felony,” Moy said.
Violators of the law face punishments that include life in prison and a civil penalty of not less than $100,000, plus attorney’s fees.
Despite the growing challenges, reproductive justice advocates in Texas have not backed down, and many organizations continue to fight for equal access to abortion care.
On the local scale, Texas activists are planning a large mobilization in the Rio Grande Valley on Oct. 7 to “highlight the urgency of the intersecting crises of attacks on abortion care and immigration plaguing Latino/x communities across the U.S.,” Rodríguez said. “More people than ever are signing up to demand action from their elected officials; organizing for abortion access in their communities; attending local events, rallies, and lobby days; as well as joining Instagram and Facebook Live chats and webinars to learn more about abortion and how they can get involved.”
Community Catalyst’s Dallas-based partner organization The Afiya Center has launched multiple programs to educate the community about the negative impact of the state’s abortion ban. Organizers also hope to mobilize the community against anti-choice-led local ordinances, inform people about their rights and resources, and formulate new power-building strategies to hold policymakers accountable for political attacks on reproductive health care.
On the legal side, Hill pointed out several lawsuits that have attempted to secure abortion access, including ones to protect the work of abortion funds that provide money for women to travel out of state, to seek damages on behalf of people who were forced to carry dangerous, nonviable pregnancies to term, and to force hospitals to provide abortions when they are needed to protect the patient’s health or life in a medical emergency.
On the national scale, Christie pointed to the Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance (EACH) Act that, if passed, can ensure abortion care is affordable and accessible to all regardless of income or source of insurance.
In addition, the Women’s Health Protection Act was first introduced in Congress in 2013 to ensure that access to abortion is legal in every state. “While the likelihood of passage in the near future is slim, it is an important effort on the path toward reestablishing the right to abortion nationwide,” Moy said.
Organizations and coalitions led by women of color, champions in Congress, and other advocates across the country have also called for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding for abortion care.