(BBC News) A law banning abortion from as early as six weeks into pregnancy has come into effect in the US state of Texas.
It bans abortions after the detection of what anti-abortion campaigners call a fetal heartbeat, something medical authorities say is misleading. The law, one of the most restrictive in the country, took effect after the Supreme Court did not respond to an emergency appeal by abortion providers.
Doctors and women’s rights groups have heavily criticised the law. It gives any individual the right to sue doctors who perform an abortion past the six-week point. The so-called “Heartbeat Act” was signed into law by Texas Governor Greg Abbott in May.
But rights groups, including Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), then requested that the Supreme Court block the legislation. In the early hours of Wednesday, the ACLU confirmed that the court had “not responded to our request”, adding: “Access to almost all abortion has just been cut off for millions of people.”
The group, which says that up to 90% of abortions in Texas take place after six weeks of pregnancy, described the development as “blatantly unconstitutional”. The US women’s health group Planned Parenthood also condemned the ban, tweeting: “No matter what, we aren’t backing down and we are still fighting. Everyone deserves access to abortion.”
In a statement, President Joe Biden denounced the bill as “extreme”, warning it would “significantly impair” access to abortion care, particularly for low-income Texans and racial minorities. The Supreme Court still has the power to overturn the ban at a later stage.
What does the law say?
Since the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v Wade, US women have had the right to an abortion until a fetal is viable – that is, able to survive outside the womb. This is usually between 22 and 24 weeks into a pregnancy.
The so-called Texas Heartbeat Act prohibits abortions after six weeks of pregnancy – at a point when many women do not know they are pregnant. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has said the term “heartbeat” is misleading, and that what is being detected at this stage is “a portion of the fetal tissue that will become the heart as the embryo develops”.
The Texas law enforces its ban with an uncommon approach: it empowers any private citizen to sue anyone who “aids and abets” an illegal abortion. The legislation makes an exception in the case of a medical emergency, which requires written proof from a doctor, but not for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. Texan women who wish to have an abortion after six weeks will need to travel across state lines, or – as estimated by the pro-choice Guttmacher Institute – an average of 248 miles (399km).