Texas Republicans pushing ‘heartbeat’ bill banning abortion after 6 weeks; allows private citizens to sue doctors


AUSTIN, Texas (NewsNation Now) — Texas would ban abortions after an embryonic heartbeat is detected, as early as six weeks — before many women know they are pregnant — under a measure given preliminary approval by the GOP-dominated state House on Wednesday.

Senate Bill 8 would also allow private citizens to enforce the rule through civil lawsuits against doctors who administer abortions in violation of the “heartbeat bill” and others that assist.

A similar version has already passed the state Senate, and any differences will have to be negotiated before the bill goes to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. The governor has suggested he would sign it into law.

The Texas bill would ban abortions after the first detection of an embryonic “heartbeat.” Advanced technology can detect an electric signal flutter as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, even though the embryo isn’t yet a fetus and doesn’t have a heart. An embryo is termed a fetus beginning in the 11th week of pregnancy, medical experts say.

“Once that heartbeat is detected, that life is protected,” said Rep. Shelby Slawson, the House sponsor of the measure said before the bill passed 81-63. “For far too long, abortion has meant the end of a beating heart.”

A unique provision in the Texas bill prohibits state officials from enforcing the ban.

Instead, it allows anyone, even someone outside of Texas, to sue a doctor or anyone else who may have helped someone get an abortion after the time limit, and seek financial damages. Supporters of the measure hope that provision would survive the legal challenges that have doomed similar laws elsewhere.

“The Texas Heartbeat Act is novel in approach, allowing for citizens to hold abortionists accountable through private lawsuits. The bill does not punish women who obtain abortions,” Texas Right to Life said in a statement.

But critics say that provision would allow abortion opponents to flood the courts with lawsuits to harass doctors, patients, nurses, domestic violence counselors, a friend who drove a woman to a clinic, or even a parent who paid for a procedure.

And they argue that it would violate state constitutional requirements that civil lawsuits can be filed only by impacted parties. Under the bill, a person filing the lawsuit would not need any personal connection to the abortion in question.

The House version prevents a rapist, or someone who got a woman pregnant through incest, from filing a lawsuit over a late abortion.

“Regardless of our personal beliefs about abortion, as licensed physicians in Texas, we implore you to not weaponize the judicial branch against us to make a political point,” a group of 200 doctors wrote to House leadership on Monday.

A tearful Rep. Donna Howard, a Democrat, said it will force women into “dark corners” when seeking abortions.

Texas State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, talks with fellow lawmakers in the House Chamber, Wednesday, May 5, 2021, in Austin, Texas. Howard opposes a bill introduced in Texas that would ban abortions as early as six weeks and allow private citizens to enforce it through civil lawsuits, under a measure given preliminary approval by the Republican-dominated state House on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

“We do not want to return to a time when women had to hide in the shadows and risk their very lives with unsafe procedures,” Howard said.

Rep. Slawson shared on the House floor Wednesday that when her mother was pregnant with her, a doctor recommended an abortion due to potential developmental issues — but her mother carried her to term.

“Now 44 years and two days later, that little baby girl is standing in this chamber. Her heart beating as strongly and as rapidly as it did all those years ago. As she lays out before you Senate Bill 8,” Slawson said.

Rep. Slawson faced hours of questioning including a back-and-forth with Rep. Howard over the science behind fetal heart monitors.

“According to the science, the Doppler fetal monitor that has that sound that you gave us a while ago, is not actually the sound of a heartbeat, but an amplified version of signals. You’re not hearing a heartbeat, you’re hearing an amplified version of electrical signals. Did you know that?” Rep. Howard questioned.

“Representative, I’ve had a lot of ultrasounds and they never once referenced an electrical impulse. It was measured in beats per minute,” Rep. Slawson responded, disagreeing.

Texas law currently bans abortion after 20 weeks, with exceptions for a woman with a life-threatening medical condition or if the fetus has a severe abnormality.

Proponents of these so-called “heartbeat bills” are hoping for a legal challenge to eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court, where they look for the conservative coalition assembled under President Donald Trump to end the constitutional right to abortion protected under the high court’s landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling.

Texas joins about a dozen other Republican-led states to pass so-called “heartbeat bills” which have been mostly blocked by federal courts.

The measure would likely face legal challenges from abortion rights groups if it becomes law.

“This bill is about nothing more than politics and is fueled by extremist efforts to ban abortion outright,” Planned Parenthood said in a statement. “Planned Parenthood will do everything it can to protect its patients. This fight does not end here.”

Nexstar Media Wire and The Associated Press contributed to this article, Jim Vertuno/AP reporting.

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