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This Is What the First Hours of a Near-Total Ban on Abortion Look Like

The Texas law SB 8 will force abortion clinics in the state to turn away about 80 percent of all patients.

By Amy Littlefield

September 2, 2021

Abortion rights supporters gather to protest the Texas law SB 8 in front of Edinburg City Hall in Edinburg, Tex.(Joel Martinez / The Monitor via AP)

Like many abortion activists in Texas, Amanda Beatriz Williams stayed up most of the night on Tuesday and awoke to a terrifying silence.

Her organization, the Lilith Fund, helps people pay for abortions in Texas. On a typical shift, they hear from between 30 and 50 people. On Wednesday, as a near-total ban forced clinics across the state to stop providing most abortions, the fund heard from fewer than 10.

“This is a huge drop in the number of people that we normally hear from and that just tells us that those people are out there, pregnant against their will,” Williams said. “It is absolutely devastating.” As she speaks, Williams breaks down into sobs.

The law, Senate Bill 8, bans abortion after embryonic cardiac activity can be detected, which usually happens between five and seven weeks after a woman’s last period, before many women know they’re pregnant, and before an embryo has developed anything resembling a heart. Experts have estimated that the ban will force Texas clinics to turn away about 80 percent of all patients. It deputizes any private citizen to enforce the law by filing suit against anyone who “aids and abets” in a banned abortion, a definition so sprawling, opponents warn, it could apply to a patient’s friend or spouse, the Uber driver who takes them to the clinic, or a donor who writes a check to an abortion fund. Those who sue have an incentive; they can win at least $10,000 per abortion, and even if they lose, the person they sued will still have to pay their own legal fees. Clinics and grassroots activists like Williams had hoped for a last-minute reprieve from the Supreme Court after the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit canceled a lower-court hearing on a challenge to the ban. But the Supreme Court failed to act and then, late Wednesday night, denied an emergency request to block the ban.

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“It means that, at least right now, the state of Texas has become the first state since Roe v. Wade to enact and actually have a six-week ban that goes into effect,” Marc Hearron, lead attorney on the case with the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a press call Wednesday.

This is what the first few hours of a near-total abortion ban look like.

Late Tuesday night, in the waning hours of legal abortion in the state, the doctor and clinic administrator at the Whole Woman’s Health clinic in Fort Worth broke down in tears, their waiting room still full, with 27 patients and their loved ones hoping to get care, CEO Amy Hagstrom Miller said in the press call. As darkness fell, anti-abortion protesters shone giant lights toward the clinic. They called the police and the fire department to claim, falsely, that the clinic was violating the law because of the number of people inside. Still, Hagstrom Miller said, the clinic was able to see every patient, the last one at 11:56 pm.

On Wednesday, when the ban took effect, there were 77 people on the schedule at that clinic alone, none of whom would be able to have abortions in Texas if their pregnancies had detectable cardiac activity.

The Frontera Fund, which helps people in the Rio Grande Valley, a stretch of southernmost Texas almost the size of Connecticut, shut down temporarily in an effort to comply with the law. Executive Director Zaena Zamora said the fund has seen a drop in calls to their help line since last week, because appointments in Texas were no longer available. Those who chose to travel would have to make their way nine hours to Louisiana, a state with its own extensive abortion restrictions where a hurricane cut off power to over a million people and where it was unclear which clinics were still operating, or 12 hours to New Mexico. Zamora said her fund had been working with a caller who was likely past the six-week mark but could not get an appointment in Texas until September 2. Because of her job and family obligations, she was unable to travel out of state. Zamora isn’t sure what happened to her.

For undocumented patients who live in the valley, meanwhile, traveling out of Texas is an unsafe option because of Border Patrol checkpoints 100 miles north of the border.

“There’s no leaving the valley without crossing a checkpoint,” Zamora said. “People might just take the risk, but they’re putting themselves in danger by doing that.”

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Meanwhile, Anna Rupani, co–executive director of Fund Texas Choice, which helps abortion patients travel outside of the state to access care, was seeing a rise in calls, with more than double the number of typical clients last week alone. The fund’s callers were traveling from Texas to New Mexico and Oklahoma and even as far away as Seattle, she said.

In the days before the ban took effect, Rupani had been calling hotels as far away as California and Florida to negotiate bulk rates, haggling with managers over what she tried to sell as an influx of potential customers. Already, patients who rushed to make decisions about existing pregnancies encountered wait times prolonged by clinic closures and staffing shortages. Hiring had been difficult because potential staff saw abortion jobs as temporary, Hagstrom Miller said, speaking to The Nation the week before the ban.

“The law doesn’t even need to go into effect for it to have had this deep rippling effect all across the state,” she observed.

Hagstrom Miller said people began calling clinics before they had even missed their periods, afraid that they wouldn’t find out whether they were pregnant until after the ban had taken effect. “The power of the state to just manipulate people’s lives is remarkable.”

The Friday before the ban, the website for Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, which offers abortions at four locations, was already warning people that they might need to travel.

“Because of a new abortion ban (SB8) , Texas health centers are only able to provide abortion services within about 6 weeks of the first day of your last period,” an advisory on the website on Friday said. “We can help determine how far along your pregnancy is & find out-of-state care options if needed.” Planned Parenthood of South Texas has stopped offering abortions due to the ban.

“It’s hard not to feel alone to some extent here in Texas right now,” Ghazaleh Moayedi, an abortion provider in Texas said, speaking the week before the ban was due to go into effect. “I think many people across the nation actually don’t understand the severity of what’s about to happen.”

Moayedi was facing the likelihood of being sued for performing her work, a fact that she would have to report when she went to renew her medical license. Compounding the weight of the moment for providers like Moayedi was the fact that something like this has happened before—twice. In 2013, an anti-abortion law that required Texas abortion providers to secure hospital privileges and clinics to meet ambulatory surgery center requirements shuttered about half of the clinics in the state. Whole Woman’s Health defeated the law before the Supreme Court in 2016, a landmark victory that came too late for many clinics, which were unable to reopen. Then last March, Governor Greg Abbott banned most abortions as nonessential services, leading to a dizzying four weeks where access flicked on and off eight times.

Such efforts prevent the people who face the most hurdles from getting to care in time—including minors who have to navigate the judicial bypass process if they don’t have permission from a parent to get an abortion.

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“We know that for teens, especially minors, who are having to keep their abortion care and pregnancy secret, they might just not be able to get through all of those hurdles, and so then you see the abortion restrictions working the way they were meant to work, which is to stop people from getting abortions,” Rosann Mariappuram of Jane’s Due Process, an organization that helps minors with the judicial bypass process in Texas, said.

This impact is what the law intended. John Seago, legal director of Texas Right to Life, has estimated that the ban will prevent 10,000 abortions per year, calling that a “conservative calculation” in his testimony before the Texas legislature.

These near-total bans were once considered too extreme even for the mainstream anti-abortion movement. In 2019, a wave of similar near-total abortion bans in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi led to a viral outpouring of support that raised millions of dollars in donations to abortion access groups. But because those bans relied on the state for enforcement, federal courts intervened and stopped all of them before they went into effect. So Texas abortion opponents adopted a civil litigation strategy to try to make it court-proof.

“This bill is written to succeed where 11 other states have failed,” Seago told lawmakers.

The weaponization of civil litigation to stop abortion first became popular in the 1990s, when anti-abortion pastor Mark Crutcher circulated how-to-sue guides to encourage people who had had abortions to file lawsuits against abortion providers, according to Mary Ziegler, a professor at Florida State University who specializes in abortion law. In 1999, Louisiana passed a law, still on the books, granting women who had had abortions a tort remedy to sue providers. Since then, Ziegler says, states have mostly stayed away from this civil litigation strategy in order to focus on laws that give the Supreme Court an opportunity to overturn Roe v. Wade. Anti-abortion organizers in Texas appear to have revived the civil strategy in the hopes of shutting down abortion access in the meantime. A city ordinance banning abortion in the city of Lubbock, Tex., which forced the Planned Parenthood there to halt most abortions, declares that anyone who aids and abets in an abortion would be liable for damages and attorney’s fees to the “unborn child’s mother, father, grandparents, siblings and half-siblings.”

If the Supreme Court undermines Roe v. Wade in a way that allows for outright bans on abortion, the anti-abortion movement could push to make this vigilante approach even more widespread, because law enforcement may not necessarily prioritize abortion prosecutions or know when someone is buying pills online.

“Whereas if you have sort of vigilantes whose whole lives are about doing this, you may have a much better chance of actually stopping people from having abortions,” Ziegler said.

But Texas has highlighted not only the anti-abortion strategy but the furious resistance to it. Abortion activists have seen in a surge in donations and have launched NeedAbortion.org to direct patients to the closest location for care. After Texas Right to Life launched a website for people to report violations of SB 8, abortion access supporters inundated it with fake reports. One TikTok user posted a video captioned, “Me, submitting 742 fake reports of Gov. Abbott getting abortions to flood the Abortion reporting website.” Much of the energy of the movement has been channeled into the logistics of figuring out how to move people to the nearest available clinic. But for Zaena Zamora of Frontera Fund, a moment of victory came in June, when she and fellow activists prevented the passage of one of dozens of similar ordinances to make the city of Edinburg, Tex., a “Sanctuary for the Unborn.” While council members had expressed support for the anti-abortion measure, after three hours of testimony, “nobody wanted to touch it anymore,” Zamora said. “It was a beautiful thing to see.”

“Things like that keep me going,” Zamora said. “That was a really important win that I keep in my pocket: We did that.”

Amy Littlefieldis The Nation’s abortion access correspondent and a journalist who focuses on reproductive rights, health care, and religion.


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