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US: The Texas abortion law explained

Biden lambasted the SC's decision not to block a new Texas law banning most abortions


President Joe Biden on Thursday lambasted the Supreme Court's decision not to block a new Texas law banning most abortions in the state and directed federal agencies to do what they can to insulate women and healthcare providers from the impact. Hours earlier, in the middle of the night, a deeply divided high court allowed the law to remain in force in the nation's biggest abortion curb since the court legalized the operation nationwide a half-century ago. The court voted 5-4 to deny an emergency appeal from abortion providers and others but also suggested that their order likely wasn't the last word and other challenges can be brought. Biden said his administration will launch a whole-of-government effort to respond to this decision and look at what steps the federal government can take to ensure that women in Texas have access to safe and legal abortions as protected by Roe.

The bill which was passed-- Senate Bill 8 (SB 8), known as the “fetal heartbeat bill,” makes abortions in Texas illegal after the heartbeat of the fetus is detected, unless it is a medical emergency, effectively impacting 85 per cent of abortions and wiping out abortion rights in Texas altogether. 

Biden said women should be protected from,” the impact of Texas' bizarre scheme of outsourced enforcement to private parties.” The Texas law, signed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in May, prohibits abortions once medical professionals can detect cardiac activity, usually around six weeks and before many women know they're pregnant.

With numerous state laws introducing abortion restrictions, the Supreme Court will be reviewing cases around abortion rights for months to come. 

It is the strictest law against abortion rights in the United States since the high court's landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 and part of a broader push by Republicans nationwide to impose new restrictions on abortion. The vote in the case underscores the impact of the death of the liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg last year and then-president Donald Trump's replacement of her with conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

Had Ginsburg remained on the court there would have been five votes to halt the Texas law. Justice Sonia Sotomayor called her conservative colleagues' decision stunning. Texas lawmakers wrote the law to evade federal court review by allowing private citizens to bring lawsuits in state court against anyone involved in an abortion, other than the patient. Other abortion laws are enforced by state and local officials, with criminal sanctions possible.

Under Roe vs. Wade, abortion access is a legal right. But accessibility has been broken down depending on the stage of pregnancy. Abortion access is unrestricted in the first trimester. In the second trimester, while states can regulate the point at which abortion occurs, abortions cannot be denied. In the third trimester, the states may restrict abortion access once the fetus reaches viability, which is when a fetus can survive outside of the uterus. 

Texas' law allows private citizens to sue abortion providers and anyone involved in facilitating abortions. Among other situations, that would include anyone who drives a woman to a clinic to get an abortion. The person suing against the procedure, if successful, could gain up to $10,000 plus attorney's fees. In her dissent, Justice Elena Kagan called the law patently unconstitutional, saying it allows private parties to carry out unconstitutional restrictions on the State's behalf. And Justice Stephen Breyer said a woman has a federal constitutional right to obtain an abortion during the first stage of pregnancy.

Conservatives view the SB-8 bill more as pro-life. Those opposing the bill say that it prohibits women from making an informed medical decision, as pregnancy, isn't usually detected for four weeks after a missed period.

The bill doesn't specify what constitutes to be a medical emergency, restricting access to safe abortions as the determination of whether or not the situation is a medical emergency is left to the discretion of the healthcare provider. This means abortions for non-medical reasons can be accessed only outside Texas. This creates an obstacle for people who cannot afford to travel outside the state. This in turn could result in grave consequences as people would try terminating pregnancies on their own. 

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