Texas governor signs into law one of the nation’s strictest abortion measures -- banning procedure as early as six weeks

Gov. Greg Abbott signed into a law Wednesday a measure that would prohibit in Texas abortions as early as six weeks — before some women know they are pregnant — and open the door for almost any private citizen to sue abortion providers and others.

The signing of the bill opens a new frontier in the battle over abortion restrictions as first-of-its-kind legal provisions — intended to make the law harder to block — are poised to be tested in the courts.

Abortion rights advocates have promised to challenge the new law, which they consider one of the most extreme across the country and the strictest in Texas since the landmark Roe v. Wade decision.

The law takes effect in September.

The Legislature "worked together on a bipartisan basis to pass a bill that I'm about to sign that ensures that the life of every unborn child who has a heartbeat will be saved from the ravages of abortion," Abbott said, in a livestream posted on Facebook.

The governor's signature comes just after the U.S. Supreme Court said it would hear a case concerning a Mississippi law that would ban most abortions after 15 weeks, and which could lead to new limits on abortion rights. It is the first major abortion case heard before the court's newly expanded conservative majority, and could have far-reaching effects for Texas, where a pending bill would outlaw nearly all abortions if the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade.

Senate Bill 8 was a top priority for Republican lawmakers, nearly all of whom signed on as an author or sponsor of the measure.

The bill bans abortions after a fetal heartbeat has been detected. It includes cases where the woman was impregnated as a result of rape or incest. There is an exception for medical emergencies.

Similar "heartbeat" bills have been passed by other states and held up by the courts, but Texas' version has a twist.

Instead of having the government enforce the law, the bill turns the reins over to private citizens — who are newly empowered to sue abortion providers or anyone who helps someone get an abortion after a fetal heartbeat has been detected. The person would not have to be connected to someone who had an abortion or to a provider to sue.

Proponents of the new law hope to get around the legal challenges that have tied up abortion restrictions in the courts for years. While abortion providers typically sue the state to stop a restrictive abortion law from taking effect, there's no state official enforcing Senate Bill 8 — so there's no one to sue, the bill's proponents say.

"It's a very unique law and it's a very clever law," said Josh Blackman, a constitutional law professor at South Texas College of Law Houston. "Planned Parenthood can't go to court and sue Attorney General [Ken] Paxton like they usually would because he has no role in enforcing the statute. They have to basically sit and wait to be sued."

Legal experts have been divided on the strategy, and abortion rights advocates have said they plan to fight regardless.

Elisabeth Smith, chief counsel at the Center for Reproductive Rights, which has represented abortion providers who have sued Texas, said it and other abortion rights organizations are "not going to let this six-week ban go unchallenged."

Drucilla Tigner, policy and advocacy strategist of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said the "governor's swipe of a pen can't change the Constitution."

While the law is most extreme abortion ban in the country, "abortion is both legal in Texas and supported by the majority of Texans," Tigner said.

Abortion rights advocates and lawyers say the new law would allow for a cascade of lawsuits against abortion providers, that would sap their time and money even if they ultimately won in court.

Family members, abortion funds, rape crisis counselors and other medical professionals could be open to lawsuits, under the broad language in the bill, according to legal experts and physicians who opposed the measure. People who sued would be awarded at least $10,000, as well as costs for attorney's fees, if they won.

"Every citizen is now a private attorney general," Blackman said. "You can have random people who are against abortion start suing tomorrow."

John Seago, with Texas Right to Life, an anti-abortion organization that supported the bill, said

he doubted there would be an "overwhelming number of cases on day one."

Lawsuits might be filed by anti-abortion activists who learned through talking to the woman that she got an abortion after six weeks.

"There's going to be a lot of different [fact] patterns that could lead to the case," he said. But the bill isn't "throwing out the typical way that the judicial system works — there's still going to be a judge, there's still going to be depositions, there's going to be a high bar" before fees are awarded.

The ultimate goal, he said, is to incentivize abortion providers to comply with the law instead of fighting it in court.

They can "easily avoid all of that," Seago said. "Have a public statement. Put it on their website that they're not scheduling appointments after six weeks."

The bill does not allow rapists to sue but abortion rights advocates say the wording offers flimsy protection as most rapes and sexual assaults aren't reported and don't result in a conviction.

Most abortions in Texas were already prohibited after about 20 weeks. Pill-induced abortions were barred at 10 weeks. The abortion provider must perform a sonogram on the woman 24 hours before the abortion and give them information about medical risks, abortion alternatives and assistance available to those who follow through with their pregnancy.

More than 56,600 abortions were performed on Texas residents in 2019, according to state statistics, most of them in the first trimester.

Proponents of the law celebrated its signing.

"The Legislature and Governor prioritized this historic legislation, and with his signature, approximately 50,000 precious human lives will be saved in Texas next year alone!" said Chelsey Youman, with Human Coalition Action, an anti-abortion organization.

This developing story will be updated.

Bill that would ban abortion at six weeks heads to governor's desk to become Texas law

Legislation that would ban abortions after as early as six weeks and let virtually any private citizen sue abortion providers and others was given final approval by lawmakers Thursday and is headed to Gov. Greg Abbott, who has signaled he will sign it into law.

Senate Bill 8, a Republican priority measure, is similar to "heartbeat bills" passed in other states that have been mostly stopped by the courts. But proponents of the Texas legislation believe it's structured in a way that makes it tougher to block.

The bill was denounced by hundreds of lawmakers and doctors — in letters circulated by opponents of the measure — who said its broad legal language could open the door to harassing or frivolous lawsuits that could have a "chilling effect" on abortion providers.

The bill bans abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected without specifying a specific timeframe.

The bill, which would take effect later this year, bans abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected without specifying a timeframe. A legislative analysis and the bill's proponents have said that can be as early as six weeks, though state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, in a floor debate cited medical experts who say there is no fully developed heart at that gestational age and that the sound referred to as a heartbeat is actually "electrically induced flickering" of fetal tissue.

The bill would be enforced by private citizens empowered to sue abortion providers and others who help someone get an abortion after six weeks, for example, by driving them to an abortion clinic.

Those private citizens would not need to have a connection to an abortion provider or a person seeking an abortion.

A person who impregnated someone through rape or incest could not sue.

The anti-abortion Texas Right to Life organization, which supported the bill, said the bill lets citizens hold abortion providers "accountable through private lawsuits," a strategy that has not been tried in any other state.

"The Texas Heartbeat Act is the strongest Pro-Life bill passed by the Legislature since Roe v. Wade," said the organization's senior legislative associate Rebecca Parma.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sues Biden administration demanding reinstatement of Keystone XL Pipeline permit

Twenty-one states, led by Texas and Montana, filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the Biden administration for revoking a permit for the long-disputed Keystone XL pipeline.

The complaint, filed in a Texas federal district court by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen, argues the president exceeded his authority when he canceled the pipeline's permit after being sworn in on Jan 20. The decision should rest with Congress, according to the lawsuit.

The project was supposed to move Canadian crude oil to the U.S. — and on to Texas Gulf Coast refineries. But it has been a flashpoint in fights over economic development, fossil fuels and environmentalism.

Biden said in an executive order revoking the permit that letting it remain was inconsistent with his administration's "economic and climate imperatives."

Former President Donald Trump granted a permit in 2019. The Obama administration denied one in 2015.

According to the complaint, the states expect cancellation of the pipeline would lead to a significant loss in tax revenue that would have particularly benefited "poorer rural areas." The project was expected to create high-paying union jobs in several states, the complaint says.

The contract Biden yanked revolves around a proposed part of the pipeline that would stretch from Canada to Nebraska. A portion of the project has already been built through East Texas.

Biden's swift moves to combat global warming brought equally quick criticisms from state officials that Texas oil and gas jobs are in danger. But their comments often ignore that there is a global push in the free market to limit reliance on fossil fuels, and their rhetoric belies the benefits Texas' oil and gas sector could see from Biden's early moves.

"People have a sort of litmus test gut reaction to the cancellation of the Keystone pipeline, but the reality is it's not likely to have an impact on Texas employment," Amy Myers Jaffe, managing director of the Climate Policy Lab at Tufts University in Boston, told The Texas Tribune earlier this year.Mitchell Ferman contributed to this report.

'Pro-Life' Texas lawmaker files bill making abortion punishable by the death penalty

A Texas Republican state lawmaker's bill would outlaw abortion, classify it as homicide, and make having an abortion or performing an abortion subject to the death penalty. The legislation also bans abortion as soon as the egg is fertilized.

State Rep. Bryan Slaton, who is also a minister, drafted the legislation with no exemption for rape or incest, The Texas Tribune reports. Ectopic pregnancies if they seriously threaten the life of the woman “when a reasonable alternative to save the lives of both the mother and the unborn child is unavailable" would be allowed.

“It is time for Texas to protect the natural right to life for the tiniest and most innocent Texans, and this bill does just that," Slaton said. “It's time Republicans make it clear that we actually think abortion is murder. … Unborn children are dying at a faster rate in Texas than COVID patients, but Texas isn't taking the abortion crisis seriously."

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled abortion is legal up until the point a fetus can survive outside the womb, usually considered 24 to 28 weeks. In Texas abortion is legal until 20 weeks, per the ACLU.

This Texas Republican is pushing to make abortion punishable by death

A Texas lawmaker has filed a bill that would abolish and criminalize abortions, leaving women and physicians who perform the procedure to face criminal charges that could carry the death penalty.

The legislation, filed Tuesday by state Rep. Bryan Slaton, does not include exceptions for rape or incest. It does exempt ectopic pregnancies that seriously threaten the life of the woman "when a reasonable alternative to save the lives of both the mother and the unborn child is unavailable."

"It is time for Texas to protect the natural right to life for the tiniest and most innocent Texans, and this bill does just that," Slaton said. "It's time Republicans make it clear that we actually think Abortion is murder… Unborn children are dying at a faster rate in Texas than COVID patients, but Texas isn't taking the abortion crisis seriously."

Similar measures have in the past been filed by state Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, who received death threats and was placed under the protection of the Texas Department of Public Safety after he introduced the bill in 2017. The legislation did not receive a hearing.

In 2019, a related bill from Tinderholt drew nearly eight hours of public testimony. State Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, faced "security concerns" that year after he said the bill would not move out of the committee he chaired for a vote of the full House. The bill died in the committee.

Under the bill filed Tuesday, women who receive an abortion and physicians who perform the procedure could be charged with assault or homicide, which is punishable by death in Texas, confirmed Shannon Edmonds, a staff attorney with the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. The association does not have a position on the bill.

The bill could require people to give evidence or testify about offenses involving the death of or "bodily injury to an unborn child," and would offer immunity to those who do.

It also instructs the state Attorney General to monitor and to "direct a state agency to enforce those laws, regardless of any contrary federal statute, regulation, treaty, order, or court decision."

The bill bans abortions starting at fertilization; most abortions in Texas are currently prohibited after 20 weeks. The bill's language cites one justice's opinion in a recent Supreme Court case, June Medical Services, L.L.C. v. Russo, that says the Constitution "does not constrain the States ' ability to regulate or even prohibit abortion."

Slaton, a freshman Republican from Royse City, previously tried to stop the House from naming bridges or streets without first voting to abolish abortion. The amendment failed, but was supported by more than 40 lawmakers, about half of the Republicans in the House.

Asked about the bill's language and effect, Slaton said, without further explanation, that he does not think his bill would "put a single person in jail. All my bill does, is say that an unborn child is the same as a born child and should be treated the same by the laws."

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has identified two abortion bills that will be priority items during the legislative session that started in January. One would ban nearly all abortions if the Supreme Court overturned the Roe v. Wade decision — that recognized the right to an abortion — or otherwise altered abortion laws. The other has not been filed, but is expected to be a "heartbeat bill" that could bar abortions before many women know they are pregnant.

‘Slap in the face’: Texans who lost loved ones are outraged by GOP's lifting of mask mandate

What confuses Delia Ramos about Gov. Greg Abbott's recent decision to cast off coronavirus restrictions in Texas isn't his order to let more people into restaurants. The Brownsville school counselor knows people are hurting economically.

But with more than 43,000 dead in Texas — including her husband — is wearing a mask in public too much to ask? At the least, it could take pressure off the medical systems and help prevent more people from dying, she said.

"It's not about taking away anybody's job or making anybody else suffer financially because everybody has their families to take care of," said Ramos, who lost her husband Ricardo to the coronavirus last year.

"People can go pick up groceries, people can go into a restaurant and people can shop around the mall in masks," she said.

Abbott's Tuesday declaration that it was time to "open Texas" has been decried by local officials and health experts, who say it's too soon to become lax with coronavirus restrictions, as just 7% of the state's residents have been fully inoculated against the virus. President Joe Biden likened the decision to "Neanderthal thinking," and an official with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it's not the time to loosen precautions.

But the announcement hit harder with Ramos, and others who have lost spouses, parents or friends to the virus — in some cases, making them wonder if the deaths of their loved ones meant nothing.

It feels like people that think it's "inconvenient to wear a mask" override all the "people that have been lost" to the virus, as well as doctors and nurses working long hours and teachers scared to go to work for fear of being exposed, Ramos, 39, said.

She'll continue to wear her mask "with honor."

"I don't want other children to grow up without a father, the way that mine unfortunately are going to have to grow up without one," she said.

After teasing an announcement for days, Abbott said Tuesday that masks would soon no longer be required statewide, and that businesses could return to full occupancy starting next week.

From a Mexican restaurant in Lubbock, Abbott said the state is in a "completely different position" now that vaccines are available and there is broad awareness of prevention measures. He also said there is more protective equipment, testing and treatments, and he cautioned Texans to exercise personal vigilance.

The governor's spokesperson, Renae Eze, said he "joins all Texans in mourning every single life lost to this virus, and we pray for the families who are suffering from the loss of a loved one."

"As the governor has stressed repeatedly, removing state mandates does not end the need for personal responsibility nor the importance of caring for family members, friends and neighbors," she said in a statement.

Abbott's order — which makes Texas the most populous state without a mask mandate — comes as virus variants that are more contagious have emerged in Texas, with Houston becoming the first city nationwide to record cases of every major variant, according to a recent study.

The announcement also comes before a spring break period that could send people traveling across the state, timing that makes Dr. Jamil Madi, in Harlingen, think "we're shooting ourselves in the foot."

"The virus is still here, it's not like it's faded away," said Madi, chief of critical care medicine and director of the intensive care unit at Valley Baptist Medical Center in Harlingen. "The virus is just dormant and the way it wakes up is by human contact."

Texas has seen infections and deaths from the virus drop, and hospitalizations are at their lowest point since October. But the state ranks nearly last among states for the share of its population that have gotten a shot, and the number of patients hospitalized with the virus is higher now than it was when Abbott first began a phased economic reopening of Texas last spring.

In the hard-hit Rio Grande Valley where Madi works, infections went into a lull in September and early October but have picked back up, he said. There was a wave after the winter holidays when people traveled and gathered with family members to celebrate, and he's seen patients who had the disease and recovered return sicker than ever.

"Every time we decide to let loose, whether it's gatherings or [changes to] mask mandates, we see a definite spike after an event happens," creating a kind of "roller coaster," Madi said.

"We go back to the same cycle again and again and we're tired, we're all tired, to say the least," he said.

More than 43,000 people have died with the virus in Texas during the pandemic, which has devastated swaths of the state's economy and taken a toll on people's mental health.

Ramos, among those who lost a loved one, found out about Abbott's orders on Facebook. The next post in her feed asked for prayers for two school district employees fighting the coronavirus in the ICU, she said.

She was struck by the "harsh difference in those two realities."

In nearby McAllen, Ana Flores watched Abbott's announcement in disbelief on Tuesday. For the 39-year-old, who works at an adult day care, it immediately brought back memories of when Abbott loosened COVID-19 rules in May — weeks before infections surged and devastated the predominantly Hispanic or Latino communities along the U.S.-Mexico border.

She got severely sick with the virus. Her husband of ten years, a truck driver, who was cautious and "knew a little bit about everything," was hospitalized and died at age 45.

"For [those of] us who lost a loved one, for us who survived — because I got pretty sick as well … it's like a slap in the face," Flores said of Abbott's announcement, noting his "happy" tone and the "clapping" people around him.

For Abbott to say "it's time for us to get on with our lives, everything to go back to normal," she said, "normal is not going to happen for us ever again."

She said it felt like Abbott "doesn't care" that counties in the border are "still struggling" even if other parts of Texas are doing better.

Mandy Vair, whose father, a hospice chaplain, died with the virus last summer, saw the order and wondered: Did his death not matter? She and other family members were limiting social activities and wearing masks, but were infected in November and Vair was sick for weeks. Her family still hasn't had a memorial ceremony for her late father because they don't feel it's safe to gather.

She said Abbott's decision made her think, "He got his immunization and maybe all of those that are important to him already got the immunization. So [now] the rest have to kind of fend for themselves until their turn comes up," she said. "We have to be responsible for ourselves — well, haven't we been trying to be responsible for ourselves the whole time?"

Local officials have slammed Abbott's order, saying it's premature and sends the wrong signal to residents who take cues from their leaders about how seriously to take the virus. Some have also expressed worry that front-line workers and communities of color could be left vulnerable to infection if others aren't required to wear masks around them. A CDC website says wearing a mask protects the wearer and those around them, and works "best when everyone wears one."

More than half of the COVID-19 deaths have been Black or Hispanic people, and advocates fear these communities have fallen behind in the vaccination efforts in Texas. In Texas, fatality rates in border areas like El Paso and Hidalgo, where a majority of residents are Hispanic or Latino, were among the highest per capita of big counties statewide.

State Sen. Borris Miles, a Houston Democrat, said on Twitter that Black people have a disproportionate fatality rate and that the governor lifting a statewide mask mandate amounted to "signing the death warrants of communities of color."

"Today he made it clear Black lives don't matter," Miles tweeted.

Rebecca Fischer, an epidemiologist at Texas A&M University, said she was surprised such a "drastic measure was taken at such a critical time" and thinks the state could face "potentially a devastating trajectory" if prevention measures are relaxed.

Now is "not the time to be dropping our masks or throwing them in the trash can. This is the time really to be stepping up our prevention behaviors," said Fischer, an assistant professor with A&M's school of public health.

Public health experts have recently said two masks may be better than wearing just one, given differences in how they are constructed and fit, she said.

Eze, with the governor's office, said Abbott will continue to work with other officials to "speed the vaccination process to protect Texans from COVID, with the immediate priority of vaccinating Texans who are most likely to be hospitalized or lose their life from COVID." She cited a state initiative that deployed the National Guard to help vaccinate homebound seniors.

She said Texas "has the tools and knowledge we need to deal with COVID and keep Texans safe," and that the number of vaccines is "rapidly increasing" each day and more Texans are protected.

Abbott has also said local judges can reimpose some restrictions if COVID-19 hospitalizations exceed 15% of capacity in their region for seven straight days.

But Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez said he doesn't want to wait until that point to be able to take action.

He said he was "very concerned" about Abbott's decision, and did not receive advance notice of the order.

Between the vaccinations and people who have contracted the virus, Cortez estimated about a quarter of his residents have some immunity to COVID-19.

"But we still have a long way to go," he said. "[Abbott] said from the very beginning that he was going to let science dictate his actions. Well, science tells us to have physical distance and separation, facial coverings," and to take other precautions.

What was "so special, what was so scientific" about having Texas' Independence Day be the day that the announcement was made, he asked.

In El Paso, city and county leaders urged their residents to practice the unity that helped them weather several recent tragedies, including a mass shooting in 2019 and a flood of coronavirus infections last fall. Just a few months ago, officials had to ask jail inmates to work for $2 an hour moving bodies, because regular staff couldn't keep up with the demand.

County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said COVID-19 patients were still taking up some 14% that of the region's hospital beds, indicating the area isn't ready to reopen.

"The timing is really what the problem is," he said. "If, in fact, it were true that we were ready to open, it'd be exciting for everybody, we'd be celebrating."

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued Samaniego last fall after the county judge imposed tighter restrictions than the state on business openings. Paxton won, and in his victory lap on Twitter referred to Samaniego as a tyrant and El Paso County, the state's sixth largest, as a "rogue subdivision."

Samaniego said he doesn't expect that kind of interference again because he knows he's limited in what he can do moving forward.

"We're not going to do anything that is outside of the legal components and legal elements [of the order]," he said. "We're going to look more at trends and we're going to talk to all the leaders and consult with the county-city task force. We're going to check the science before we check the politics."

El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser said his plea for El Pasoans to continue wearing masks came not just from his duties as an elected official. Leeser's mother and brother died from the disease less than two months apart in 2020.

"My mother was sick and we didn't realize that my mother had COVID-19. But I said 'Guys, make sure you wear your mask,'" Leeser recalled telling his brother and sisters late last year. His sisters listened but his brother didn't, he said.

"My brother did not wear a mask while he was there and unfortunately got COVID-19 and also lost his life," Leeser said. "I am a living testimonial that it works."

Meanwhile, the executive director of Operation H.O.P.E., an El Paso charity that helps families pay for funerals, said he's not talking to a dozen or more families every day the way he was in late 2020, when the border city was the country's COVID-19 epicenter.

But Angel Gomez, the executive director, said he's not optimistic that won't happen again.

"I just hung up with the seventh [family] today," he said. "We should have just waited a little bit longer, but with this governor it's like we take one step forward and two steps back."

"Give it until the end of April and we're going to start seeing a spike again," he added.

Flores, in McAllen, remembers when Abbott loosened the coronavirus restrictions in May. She and her husband were scared. He traveled all over Texas as a truck driver, and would call her saying he'd gone into a store and saw few people were wearing masks. She remembers seeing a newspaper headline describing South Texas as a "Valley of Death" — an apropos description to her at the time.

"Look what happened the first time around, that's when we got hit really bad especially here in the Valley. … All these people that were sick and dying, my husband included. I just feel like it's too soon again."

She's going to keep wearing a mask. If her husband were alive — if he "wouldn't have been taken from" her — she thinks he would, too.

Julián Aguilar contributed to this report.

Disclosure: Facebook and Valley Baptist Medical Center have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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