In the United States, the right to have an abortion is granted at the federal level as established by the historic 1973 Supreme Court ruling known as Roe v. Wade. According to it, no states’s government shall prohibit abortions earlier than “fetal viability,” defined as approximately 22 weeks. But each state has its own rules that establish what are the criteria and limits within which one can terminate a pregnancy. Last May, Republican Governor of Texas Greg Abbott signed a restrictive law against abortion, banning the voluntary termination of pregnancy after six weeks.
Despite numerous requests by the abortion providers not to pass the law, the conservative majority played a significant role in the passage of the ban, allowing the Supreme Court with 5 votes to 4, the passing of Senate Bill 8. It came into operation on the 1st of September. Texas’ new law is one of the most strict abortion bans in the nation.
What the law provides
The Senate Bill 8, also known as the “Texas Heartbeat Act”, prohibits abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. Why exactly after six weeks?
According to the anti-abortion campaign, after the first 6 weeks of gestation, the embryo would have a ‘heartbeat’, although this statement is contested by both doctors and feminist activists, given that at six weeks the embryo pulses, but the heart as an organ is not fully formed at all. Apart from that, very often women, before the fateful six weeks, do not know that they are pregnant or that they might have fetal malformations. The law makes an exception in case of ‘medical emergencies’, but not for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest.
In addition, another element that makes this law so radical is the fact that it also gives any individual the right to sue doctors who perform an abortion past the six-week point. Not only doctors can be reported, but anyone who wants to ‘help’ the woman with abortion, therefore beyond doctors as well:
- health personnel;
- the employees of the clinics;
- the consultors;
- people who help the woman pay the costs of the intervention;
- people accompanying the woman.
In particular, anyone who manages to proficiently sue an abortion provider under this law, can be rewarded with at least $10,000. And in order to do that, Texas Right to Life has established what it calls a ‘whistleblower’ website. It is a site where people can submit, on condition of anonymity, tips about anyone they believe to be violating the law. Groups of abortion providers and of reproductive rights stated that the law “places a bounty on people who provide or aid abortions, inviting random strangers to sue them.”
Where the United States Supreme Court has kept quiet, the United Nations Human Rights Observatory has not been slow to express its disappointment. The United Nations human rights monitors strongly exposed the state of Texas for this anti-abortion law, de facto they say it violates international law by denying women control over their own bodies and endangering their lives. In addition to that, Melissa Upreti, the chair of the UN’s working group on discrimination against women and girls, firmly condemned the Senate Bill 8 as a “structural sex and gender-based discrimination at its worst”.
Technically, under international law, governments are able to regulate voluntary termination of pregnancy. However, they are not allowed to enforce these laws in a way that puts women’s lives at risk, subject them to physical or mental pain or suffering, as well as discriminate against them. As matter of fact, according to the Human rights bodies, above all, abortion bans have been compared to a form of torture.
Furthermore, the Senate Bill 8 will likely not prevent women from interrupting their pregnancies as the World Health Organization clearly states that: “restricting access to abortions does not reduce the number of abortions.” Truth is that women would just go elsewhere or practice an unsafe abortion. This can lead to permanent disability or death. Something that does not help women any further is the fact that as the ban took act, more and more reproductive health clinics, afraid of being sued, have cut back on their services; this can be a potential problem for low-income patients who may be more likely to turn to clinics for care than to traditional hospitals. Doctors are particularly worried about the potential impact, especially on black women in Texas.
Black women already face high maternal mortality rates, considering that the Guttmacher Institute stated that about 70% of abortions in Texas in 2019 were provided to women of color and nearly half of abortion seekers live below the poverty line.
An attempt to block the law
President Joe Biden openly condemned both the U.S. Supreme Court for refusing to block Texas’ six-week abortion ban and Texas Legislature for passing such a bill. He stated that “this law is so extreme it does not even allow for exceptions in the case of rape or incest — it not only empowers complete strangers to inject themselves into the most private of decisions made by a woman — it actually incentivizes them to do so with the prospect of $10,000 if they win their case”.
As an attempt to block the new law, the Department of Justice filed an emergency order late Tuesday, asking for a temporary halt to the new Texas law. In their 45-page emergency motion, the Department said: “this relief is necessary to protect the constitutional rights of women in Texas and the sovereign interest of the United States in ensuring that its States respect the terms of the national compact. It is also necessary to protect federal agencies, employees, and contractors whose lawful actions S.B. 8 purports to prohibit.” They also claimed that the law violates the 14th Amendment, where it is said that it prevents states from banning abortion before a fetus is viable and “because S.B. 8 has that effect, it is plainly unconstitutional under binding precedent.”
The demand for abortion will not cease to exist because of restrictions. It will just become exponentially more unsafe as the desperation increases and women look to alternative methods of pregnancy termination. Protecting the future of Roe v. Wade is essential to protecting American women’s bodily autonomy and right to reproductive healthcare. This is why there will be a hearing on the Department of Justice request on October 1.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Roe v. Wade”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 17 Sep. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/event/Roe-v-Wade
Autore dell’articolo*: Dea Nicoletta Continolo, Dottoressa in Relazioni Internazionali.
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