AUSTIN, Texas — Texas became the largest state Wednesday with a law that bans abortions before many women even know they are pregnant, but with a unique provision that essentially leaves enforcement to private citizens through lawsuits against doctors or anyone who helps a woman get an abortion.
The law signed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott puts Texas in line with more than a dozen other states that ban abortions after the detection of a fetal heartbeat, as early as six weeks. Federal courts have mostly blocked the measures from taking effect.
But with the Supreme Court this week agreeing to take up a Mississippi law that bans abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy, abortion rights activists worry that a ruling favorable to the state could lay the groundwork for allowing even more abortion restrictions, including so-called heartbeat bills.
Texas' version is unique in that it prohibits state officials from enforcing the ban. Instead, it allows anyone — even someone outside Texas — to sue an abortion provider or anyone else who may have helped someone get an abortion after the limit, and seek financial damages of up to $10,000 per defendant.
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.
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. More than 90% of abortions take place in the first 13 weeks of a woman's pregnancy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Supreme Court will probably hear the Mississippi case in the fall, with a decision likely in spring 2022.