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Texas and US Supreme Court Deal Blow to Reproductive Rights

New Law Prohibits Nearly All Abortion Essentially After Six Weeks of Pregnancy

Protesters march from City Hall to the federal courthouse in protest of the new state abortion law in Houston, Texas on September 5th, 2021. © 2021 Reginald Mathalone/NurPhoto via AP

The US state of Texas and the United States Supreme Court dealt a severe blow to women’s (and pregnant people’s) human rights last week.

Dozens of US states have been passing destructive laws limiting abortion access for years, but courts usually block them under US constitutional precedents. This time, the Court allowed Texas’s restrictive abortion law to take effect while a challenge to the law winds through lower courts.

The Texas law prohibits nearly all abortion essentially after six weeks of pregnancy, before most people know they are pregnant, with no exception for rape or incest. It also permits any person in Texas to sue someone they suspect has broken the abortion law and to collect thousands of dollars in damages if they win.

This was the key question for courts: Is it unconstitutional for state governments to empower private individuals to sue others on the hunch they may have aided in or performed an abortion? Rather than blocking the law and protecting women’s rights, the Supreme Court’s response was essentially, “Let’s see how this plays out before we decide.”

But this isn’t a controlled experiment. Texas abortion providers have already had to turn away patients.

Human Rights Watch has spent nearly two decades documenting the restriction and denial of rights as the result of abortion laws. We know how restrictive abortion laws play out elsewhere – doctors are unable to provide the best possible care to pregnant teenage rape victims, and women are prosecuted for miscarriages because they resemble abortions. Hospitals withhold care for life-threatening illnesses for fear it will impact fetal health. Years’ worth of research shows that abortion restrictions don’t reduce abortions, but just drive them underground, often making them unsafe and leaving women injured or even dead.

Texans with resources may be able to travel to other states (or Mexico) for care, or find ways to end a pregnancy outside of the health system. But the consequences could be dire for young people, people living in poverty, migrants, Black, Indigenous, and other people of color who already face many barriers to abortion care due to mandatory waiting periods, forced parental consent, and other restrictions.

And now anyone can sue them.

The outcome is nothing short of devastating for women, girls, and birthing people and abortion providers in Texas. Other states may follow. How and when the Court will consider the constitutionality of the law is not clear, but the harm to women and girls is already underway.

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