AUSTIN — Texas has several laws that women seeking abortions have to navigate, including a 24-hour waiting period between a mandatory ultrasound and the procedure.
One lawmaker has filed a bill to add another restriction — banning abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected, which can be as early as six weeks, before a woman may realize she’s pregnant.
Republican Rep. Briscoe Cain’s “Texas heartbeat bill,” HB 1500, would ban abortion after heartbeat detection except in the case of medical emergencies. Current law allows abortion up to 20 weeks.
“The Texas Heartbeat Bill ensures that unborn children exhibiting a heartbeat are protected from the cruel practice of abortion,” the Deer Park lawmaker said in an email. “Put simply — if the heartbeat is detected, the baby is protected.”
Cain said that the heartbeat is a universally recognized sign of life and that he is committed to making Texas the safest place in the country for “unborn children.”
Planned Parenthood, the ACLU and other abortion rights organizations have raised the alarm about the bill, sending supporters emails that say it would ban abortion completely in Texas.
“Politicians should be working to advance access to the full range of reproductive health care, including abortion care — not making it more difficult,” NARAL Pro Choice Texas executive director Aimee Arrambide said in an email last week. “Shame on Briscoe Cain and all anti-abortion legislators who have signed on in support of this dangerous bill, and for putting their ideological beliefs over public health.”
In an email, former state Sen. Wendy Davis said the bill is “one of the most dangerous bills [she’s] ever seen.”
Since Cain filed the bill Feb. 7, 56 Republicans have signed on as authors. All are male except three: Reps. Stephanie Klick of Fort Worth, Candy Noble of Allen and Valoree Swanson of Spring.
Texas House Republicans filed a heartbeat bill in 2013, but it never made it to a committee and had only four lawmakers sign on as authors.
“2019 is the year of the Heartbeat Bill,” Cain said. “I’m humbled to see the growing wave of support this and other heartbeat bills are receiving across our state and nation.”
Heartbeat laws elsewhere
In Mississippi, a heartbeat bill passed the House and Senate and could soon become law. Others are making their way through legislatures in Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia.
Abby Johnson, a former Texas Planned Parenthood director who now is an abortion opponent, recently testified in Kentucky before a heartbeat bill passed the state Senate. She said she hopes the bill will pass in Texas.
“Ultimately, my goal would be to ban abortion completely, but this is a good step moving the ball forward for the pro-life movement and in protecting many more babies and moms from abortion,” Johnson said. “I don’t think it’s ever just to intentionally take the life of an innocent human being.”
Johnson had two abortions before the 2011 Texas law requiring a pre-abortion sonogram — and before she changed her stance, she said.
“My two abortions are the greatest regrets of my life,” Johnson said. “That is not what women deserve.”
Will the law be constitutional?
Similar laws in several states have lost legal challenges. In January, an Iowa state judge struck down the state’s 2018 heartbeat law, declaring it unconstitutional. In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a 2013 North Dakota heartbeat law, and in 2015, a federal appeals court blocked a 2013 Arkansas law that banned abortion after 12 weeks if there was a heartbeat.
The 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe vs. Wade guarantees a woman’s right to an abortion, and Planned Parenthood vs. Casey from 1992 prohibits states from placing an undue burden on women seeking them.
Joe Kobylka, director of undergraduate studies for political science at Southern Methodist University, said that as the Supreme Court has understood precedent, he believes the law would be unconstitutional. But with conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh on the bench, he said, the court could decide differently.
“This is one of those cases where the two [President Donald] Trump appointments to the court can be absolutely crucial in determining whether the abortion right survives,” Kobylka said. “This is why states keep passing heartbeat laws. It’s an effort to move the car a little further down the road with the ultimate destination of the reversal of the abortion rights.”
Cain said the Texas heartbeat bill was written with input from top constitutional attorneys who have argued cases before the Supreme Court.
“While there is still much work to do, I’m optimistic about the path forward,” he said.
The bill was referred to the House public health committee last week, and a companion bill is expected to be filed in the Senate.