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The Republican-led Legislature passed a bill to almost immediately outlaw abortions in Texas if the U.S. Supreme Court reverses Roe v. Wade, the 1973 case that legalized abortion.
Called a “trigger” law, House Bill 1280 would take effect 30 days after the Supreme Court overturned the Roe decision or after a court ruling or constitutional amendment gave states the authority to prohibit abortions.
The bill’s passage comes days after Gov. Greg Abbott signed one of the strictest abortion laws nationwide, and as a Supreme Court ruling on abortion — the first from its newly expanded conservative majority — is looming.
“With a pro-life lawsuit heading to the conservative SCOTUS this bill and a favorable ruling would make Texas one of the first states to end abortions,” the bill’s author, state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, said on Twitter.
HB 1280 was approved by the Senate Tuesday and now heads to the Texas governor for signature. It passed the House earlier this spring.
The measure is widely backed by Republicans, who have aggressively pushed conservative social issues as legislative priorities this session, ranging from abortion to the permitless carry of handguns.
The Texas ban imposes a hefty penalty on doctors, who could face life in prison or $100,000 fines if they perform abortions. The bill does not make exceptions for women at risk of suicide or self-harm, pregnant as a result of rape or incest, or in the case of severe or potentially lethal fetal abnormalities. Women who face death or a “substantial impairment of major bodily function” if an abortion is not performed are excluded from the measure.
At least 10 states have passed similar “trigger” laws.
Proponents of the legislation say it would let the state’s part-time Legislature swiftly ban abortions if ever allowed by the Supreme Court. It also guards against the prospect that a court ruling on abortion comes down while different state leaders — perhaps with less anti-abortion views — are in power.
"We don't know what the mood of the Legislature will be in 12 months or 24 months or 36 months," said Joe Pojman, head of the Texas Alliance for Life.
But opponents say the ban and other abortion restrictions would push abortions underground or put them out of reach for people unable to travel out-of-state for the procedure.
“I’m worried we will see more people pursue sort of do-it-yourself — the proverbial back alley procedures that are less safe, and much more likely to have complications,” said state Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, in an interview earlier this year. “I think something a lot of my colleagues miss is that it's not a choice between abortion and not abortion, it's a choice between safe legal abortion and unsafe illegal abortion.”
The bill's passage comes as anti-abortion advocates have pushed aggressive restrictions for months, hoping to launch a case that could make its way to the Supreme Court. The court agreed in May to hear a case concerning a Mississippi law that seeks to ban most abortions at 15 weeks, with a ruling expected sometime next year.
At the local level, abortion rights groups this month sued Lubbock after voters approved an ordinance outlawing abortions in the West Texas city’s limits.
Pojman said HB 1280 was the most "momentous" bill passed in Texas in about twenty years. The measure, combined with the expected Supreme Court ruling, could afford "real protection for unborn babies before viability," he said.
"Why did that happen this session? I think this goes back to November 2020, when the so-called blue wave came into Texas, crashed on the rocks and went nowhere," he said, referring to Democrats' disappointing showing in the recent election.
"The unborn child is the same whether the child is wanted by the mother or not wanted by the mother. The child is a member of the human species, and deserves protection from the state of Texas, in our view," he said.
HB 1280 is the second major abortion restriction to reach Abbott’s desk.
Earlier this month, Abbott signed into law a measure that would ban abortions as early as six weeks, before many women know they’re pregnant. The law lets virtually anyone sue abortion providers and others who help a woman get an abortion after a fetal heartbeat has been detected. A legal challenge is expected.
More than 56,600 abortions were performed on Texas residents in 2019, most of them in the first trimester, according to state statistics.
The issue of abortion access breaks largely along partisan lines and public sentiment has barely budged over the past few years. According to a 2021 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, 54% of Texas voters oppose automatically banning all abortions if the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
Nationally, the abortion rate has steadily declined since the 1980s, which experts attribute to greater access to contraception. The profile of people receiving abortions has also changed to be more concentrated among those with less means, said Daniel K. Williams, a history professor at the University of West Georgia. He wrote a book about the “pro-life movement before Roe v. Wade.”
Though legal abortion could “completely vanish” in parts of the country if the decision were overturned, Williams doesn’t think there would be a substantial decrease in the number of abortions.
People would travel to more liberal states, like New York and California, as they did before Roe v. Wade. And, already, people in southern and midwestern areas live in “what is almost a pre-Roe” environment, he said. Because there has been a rapid decrease of abortion providers in recent years, some women must already travel several hours to find an abortion provider, especially if they’re in a rural area, he said.
“People have correctly pointed out that if Roe v. Wade is repealed, low-income women would be disproportionately affected,” he said. “Though probably in most cases they would continue doing what they've already been doing, which is traveling and saving or borrowing money to get abortions.”
Retired University of Texas at Austin law professor Barbara Hines was one of several university students who helped women find abortion providers in the 1960s and ’70s.
Working out of a small room in a community center across the street from the UT-Austin campus, Hines said the group started to provide information about birth control — then largely accessible only to married women — but began providing abortion referrals when pregnant women sought help.
“We sent women to all sorts of places,” she said. Some went to Piedras Negras, across the border from Eagle Pass, or flew to London. As abortion restrictions began loosening in the 1960s and ’70s, others went to New York, New Mexico and California.
“Just like medical care today, it depends on your economic situation, and it wasn’t any different then,” she said.
The Roe v. Wade decision came down while Hines was in law school.
“I remember thinking, ‘OK, now we can move on to the next issue that affects women’s rights and equal justice for women.’ I never imagined ever that we would be here today,” she said.