The Republican-led Legislature passed a bill to almost immediately outlaw abortions in Texas if the U.S. Supreme Court reverses Roe v. Wade, the 1973 case that legalized abortion.
Called a “trigger” law, House Bill 1280 would take effect 30 days after the Supreme Court overturned the Roe decision or after a court ruling or constitutional amendment gave states the authority to prohibit abortions.
The bill does not make exceptions for women at risk of suicide or self-harm, pregnant as a result of rape or incest, or in the case of severe or potentially lethal fetal abnormalities. Women who face death or a “substantial impairment of major bodily function” if an abortion is not performed are excluded from the Texas ban.
The bill’s passage comes days after Gov. Greg Abbott signed one of the strictest abortion laws nationwide, and as a Supreme Court ruling on abortion — the first from its newly expanded conservative majority — is looming.
It “will create in Texas the fullest extent of protection for the unborn, in the event and to the extent that the Supreme Court reverses its rulings,” said state Sen. Angela Paxton, a McKinney Republican and sponsor of the measure.
HB 1280, which already passed the House, passed the Senate Tuesday and now heads to the Texas governor for signature. It’s widely backed by Republicans, who have aggressively pushed conservative social issues as legislative priorities this session, ranging from abortion to the the permitless carry of handguns.
More than 56,600 abortions were performed on Texas residents in 2019, most of them in the first trimester, according to state statistics.
“This bill takes us back to the beginning, back where we were before a bunch of men in black robes decided for us,” said Kyleen Wright, president of Texans for Life at a committee hearing.
Proponents of the “trigger” legislation say it would let the state’s part-time Legislature swiftly ban abortions if ever allowed by the Supreme Court.
But opponents say the ban and other abortion restrictions would simply push abortions underground or put them out of reach for people unable to travel out-of-state for the procedure.
“I’m worried we will see more people pursue sort of do-it-yourself — the proverbial back alley procedures that are less safe, and much more likely to have complications,” said state Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, in an interview earlier this year. “I think something a lot of my colleagues miss is that it’s not a choice between abortion and not abortion, it’s a choice between safe legal abortion and unsafe illegal abortion.”
At least 10 states have passed similar “trigger” laws, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion rights research organization. Doctors who perform abortions could face life in prison or $100,000 fines, under the Texas ban.
The bill will be the second major abortion measure to reach Abbott’s desk.
Earlier this month, Abbott signed into law a measure that would ban abortions as early as six weeks, before many women know they’re pregnant, without exceptions for rape or incest. The law lets virtually anyone sue abortion providers and others who help a woman get an abortion after a fetal heartbeat has been detected. A legal challenge is expected.
Fights over abortion access are heating up across the country.
Anti-abortion advocates have pushed aggressive restrictions for months, hoping to launch a case that could make its way to the Supreme Court. The court agreed in May to hear a case concerning a Mississippi law that seeks to ban most abortions at 15 weeks, with a ruling expected sometime next year.
At the local level, abortion rights groups this month sued Lubbock after voters approved an ordinance outlawing abortions in the West Texas city’s limits.
The issue of abortion access breaks largely along partisan lines and public sentiment has barely budged over the past few years. According to a 2021 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, 54% of Texas voters oppose automatically banning all abortions if the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
Nationally, the abortion rate has steadily declined since the 1980s, which experts attribute to greater access to contraception. The profile of people receiving abortions has also changed to be more concentrated among those with less means, said Daniel K. Williams, a history professor at the University of West Georgia. He wrote a book about the “pro-life movement before Roe v. Wade.”
Though legal abortion could “completely vanish” in parts of the country if the decision were overturned, Williams doesn’t think there would be a substantial decrease in the number of abortions.
People would travel to more liberal states, like New York and California, as they did before Roe v. Wade. And, already, people in southern and midwestern areas live in “what is almost a pre-Roe” environment, he said. Because there has been a rapid decrease of abortion providers in recent years, some women must already travel several hours to find an abortion provider, especially if they’re in a rural area, he said.
“People have correctly pointed out that if Roe v. Wade is repealed, low-income women would be disproportionately affected,” he said. “Though probably in most cases they would continue doing what they’ve already been doing, which is traveling and saving or borrowing money to get abortions.”
Retired University of Texas at Austin law professor Barbara Hines was one of several university students who helped women find abortion providers in the 1960s and ’70s.
Working out of a small room in a community center across the street from the UT-Austin campus, Hines said the group started to provide information about birth control — then largely accessible only to married women — but began providing abortion referrals when pregnant women sought help.
“We sent women to all sorts of places,” she said. Some went to Piedras Negras, across the border from Eagle Pass, or flew to London. As abortion restrictions began loosening in the 1960s and ’70s, others went to New York, New Mexico and California.
“Just like medical care today, it depends on your economic situation, and it wasn’t any different then,” she said.
The Roe v. Wade decision came down while Hines was in law school.
“I remember thinking, ‘OK, now we can move on to the next issue that affects women’s rights and equal justice for women.’ I never imagined ever that we would be here today,” she said.