Gov. Greg Abbott signed one of the nation’s most restrictive abortion measures, banning it after six weeks of pregnancy, as Texas lawmakers take a hard-right approach to major issues.,

Advertisement

Continue reading the main story

Supported by

Continue reading the main story

SAN ANTONIO — Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas signed into law on Wednesday one of the nation’s most restrictive abortion measures, banning the procedure after six weeks of pregnancy and thrusting the state into the advancing national debate over reproductive rights.

The legislation, also known as the “heartbeat law,” amounts to an outright ban on abortion, as many women are not aware they are pregnant at the six-week mark. It also would allow any private citizen to sue doctors or abortion clinic employees who would perform or help arrange for the procedure.

The Texas law arrives at a potentially pivotal moment in the long fight over abortion rights. This week the Supreme Court announced it would consider a case from Mississippi that could undermine Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that established a constitutional right to abortion.

The case will be the first on abortion under the court’s new 6-3 conservative majority, giving anti-abortion activists hope that their strategy of passing restrictive laws in state legislatures and creating a long pipeline of new cases will pay off. Texas is among at least a dozen states to recently adopt restrictive measures.

The bill in Texas also comes two weeks before the end of one of the most staunchly conservative biennial legislative sessions in recent state history. Beyond abortion, Texas lawmakers have taken a very hard-right approach to a number of major issues and culture war subjects, including voting, gun ownership, policing and L.G.B.T.Q. rights.

A combination of soaring growth and diversity in suburbs has changed the once solidly Republican state. Still, Republican victories in last year’s election repelled an attempted Democratic “blue wave” and further solidified the G.O.P.’s longstanding hold on state government.

Flanked by more than three dozen lawmakers and abortion opponents, Mr. Abbott signed the abortion bill on Wednesday, saying: “Our creator endowed us with the right to life and yet millions of children lose their right to life every year because of abortion. In Texas, we work to save those lives.”

The legislation drew support from anti-abortion groups, who broke into applause in Mr. Abbott’s office, and condemnation from abortion rights activists, who are gearing up to challenge it in the courts. According to a recent survey of Texans by the University of Texas and The Texas Tribune, about 40 percent of respondents identified themselves as “pro-life” and 41 percent as “pro-choice.”

Image

The legislation drew support from anti-abortion groups, who broke into thunderous applause in Mr. Abbott’s office.Credit…Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman, via Associated Press

Joe Pojman, the executive director with the Texas Alliance for Life, an anti-abortion advocacy group, said he was confident the state’s new law would prevail despite the “steep hill” it would face in the courts. He pointed to the growing number of states and localities that have passed restrictive measures.

“People are ready for a change,” Mr. Pojman said. “People understand that an unborn child is a baby and society has a responsibility to protect that baby.”

State and national Democrats slammed the new law.

Christian D. Menefee, the chief civil lawyer for Harris County, the most populous county in Texas, called the new law “morally reprehensible, unconstitutional, and nothing more than a blatant attempt to limit women’s access to health care.”

“I look forward to the courts invalidating this law,” he said, “but it’s embarrassing that we even got this far.”

A number of abortion clinics in the state closed after a 2013 law set new standards for Texas facilities that performed abortions, including minimum sizes for rooms and admission privileges at nearby hospitals for doctors. That law was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016, and since then, several states have passed a range of measures that have been blocked by federal courts.

Texas chapters of Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union recently filed a lawsuit against Lubbock, where voters approved a “Sanctuary for the Unborn” ordinance this month. The rule effectively bans all abortions in the city of almost 260,000 residents, where more than two-thirds of voters cast ballots for Donald J. Trump in 2016 and 2020.

Image

Abortion rights demonstrators outside the Supreme Court in Washington last year.Credit…Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

In a legislative session that has leaned heavily conservative, not all Texans agreed with the priorities set by their legislators. Only 7 percent said the gun debate should be the top priority for lawmakers, and 5 percent said the same for voting rights. Of more concern were the economy, the power grid, the coronavirus pandemic and border security, which ranked highest at 36 percent, according to a recent poll by the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.

Texas, long the most populous Republican-dominated state in the country, has increasingly tilted toward a more moderate electorate. Barack Obama lost Texas by nearly 16 percentage points in 2012, but Joseph R. Biden Jr. gained tremendous ground and lost it by just nearly six percentage points in 2020. In the 2018 Senate race, Beto O’Rourke lost to Ted Cruz by just shy of 215,000 votes.

But amid such political and demographic changes, Texas Republicans remain galvanized and invigorated in the post-Trump era. Just as Texas relished playing the conservative antidote in the Obama era, the state’s Republican leaders are taking on the same role in the Biden presidency.

During one 48-hour period this month, the state’s House of Representatives passed several Republican-led measures. With two weeks before the end of the session, legislation passed includes allowing Texans to carry firearms without permits; new voter restrictions mirroring those enacted in Georgia, Florida and other states; penalties against municipal governments attempting to “defund police”; and proposed restrictions on transgender youth.

“It’s certainly been the most conservative session that we’ve seen in a decade,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor of political science at the University of Houston. “The push on guns, on abortion, on defunding the police have all been national Republican issues. That national rightward trend has hit Texas and it stuck in Texas.”

The Supreme Court will not hear arguments in the Mississippi law banning abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy until the fall, and a decision could be more than a year away. Still, advocates for reproductive rights said they feared that the court, which has a conservative majority, could strike down a 50-year precedent.

Elizabeth Nash, a senior state policy manager at the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion rights organization, called the Texas abortion law “new and uniquely cruel” because it would make scores of medical providers vulnerable to lawsuits.

“This ban in Texas is clearly about controlling pregnant people’s bodies and preventing them from making decisions about their lives and futures,” Ms. Nash said. “It is going to have a chilling effect.”

Edgar Sandoval reported from San Antonio, and Dave Montgomery from Austin, Texas. Manny Fernandez contributed reporting.