A Texas ban on abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected went into effect Wednesday, spurring worries in the state of Washington that such restrictive laws could trigger a domino effect on abortion access elsewhere.
Early Thursday Eastern time, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the state’s ban can stay in place, meaning Texas doctors who perform an abortion after they detect cardiac activity in a fetus could face a $10,000 lawsuit from any private citizen.
With Chief Justice John Roberts joining the three dissenting liberal justices, the Texas ban spurred big-picture questions about ripple effects on abortion access throughout the nation. Though Washington state legislators codified the right to abortion in the state constitution, Vice President of Public Affairs at Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho Paul Dillon said the Texas law could have a domino effect on access to reproductive services if the Supreme Court overturns the 1973 Roe v. Wade case.
“This really is a red-alert moment for sexual reproductive rights,” Dillon said. “We need to watch other states that follow the Texas playbook.”
Human Life of Washington, based in Federal Way, expressed support for the law. Executive director Esther Ripplinger said she agreed doctors should inform pregnant people when the fetus has cardiac activity.
“It’s really a perpetuated lie that it’s just a blob of tissue,” Ripplinger said. “That blob of tissue has a beating heart.”
In a statement, Ripplinger said: “I applaud the efforts of our sister affiliate, Texas Right to Life, whose diligent work with state legislators ensured protection for all preborn babies. Now, all women may be prevented from the trauma of abortion through full disclosure of their preborn babies’ stage of development, including the existence of a heartbeat.”
Other states have tried to pass such heartbeat bills, including North Dakota in 2013 and South Carolina in 2021. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled each of those bills unconstitutional because of case precedent that said states cannot ban abortion before viability, or 22 to 24 weeks into pregnancy, according to the government definition of viability.
Earlier this year in Idaho, a bill that would ban abortions after cardiac activity could not go into effect because of a “trigger” provision barring its recognition unless a federal appeals court upheld a similar law in another state.
Human Life of Washington supports overturning of Roe v. Wade, according to its website. The organization advocates for the position that life begins at conception.
Dillon said the Texas law contains language that could create a “sue-thy-neighbor” mentality.
In the bill’s text, the law allows any private citizen to sue for up to $10,000 anyone who performed or induced an abortion, including anyone who “aids and abets” that procedure. A citizen could name someone who gave the patient a ride to the clinic or paid for the procedure as a defendant.
Allowing private citizens to pursue a lawsuit could make successful pro-abortion challenges to the law difficult because it does not allow state officials to be named as defendants, according to a legal analysis of the law from July by law professors Laurence H. Tribe and Stephen I. Vladeck in the New York Times.
“The Texas law, by contrast, leaves private enforcement as the only mechanism for enforcing the broad restrictions on abortions after the sixth week of pregnancy,” the analysis reads. “It specifically precludes the state’s attorney general or any other state official from initiating enforcement.”
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., wrote in a statement Wednesday that the bill would encourage “total strangers” to watch and report their neighbors.
“If you disagree with the idea that a complete stranger could, legally, demand $10,000 from you just because they disagree with your personal decisions, you should find this Texas anti-abortion ban as much of a nightmare as I do,” Murray said in the statement.
The bill included a partial exception, which said civil action could not be “brought by a person who impregnated the abortion through an act of rape, sexual assault (or) incest,” according to the bill’s text.
This means anyone who does not have that relationship to the patient could still sue the provider of the abortion procedure, regardless of whether it involved a survivor of sexual assault or incest.
In an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll, 58% of Americans said they would not want a ban on abortions after the first detection of the fetal heartbeat, and 60% believe abortion should remain legal during the first three months of pregnancy without restrictions.
“We know the majority of Texans do not feel this way, what has passed does not reflect the majority of Texans,” Dillon said.
A 2019 study from Gallup had similar responses – 60% of Americans reported they did not want to overturn Roe v. Wade. A 2021 report from the Pew Research Center reported 59% of people wanted to keep abortion legal and noted there was a wider “partisan gap” in attitudes toward abortion.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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