Explainer: Texas authorizes citizens to enforce new abortion law

July 16, 2021

Texas recently passed a new law that would allow citizens, rather than government officials, to enforce a new law that prohibits abortion as early as the sixth week of pregnancy.

“The Texas Heartbeat Act is novel in approach, allowing for citizens to hold abortionists accountable through private lawsuits,” says Rebecca Parma, a senior legislative associate with Texas Right to Life. “No heartbeat law passed by another state has taken this strategy. Additionally, the bill does not punish women who obtain abortions.” 

Here is what you should know about this new pro-life legislation.

What is the Texas Heartbeat Act?

The Texas Hearbeat Act is the latest in state fetal heartbeat bills, legislation that bans abortion after the point where a heartbeat can be detected. By use of an ultrasound, the heartbeat of a child in the womb can routinely be detected as early as 6-7 weeks after conception.

The Texas law requires physicians to test for a heartbeat and prevents them from knowingly performing or inducing an abortion on a pregnant woman if they detect a fetal heartbeat for the unborn child or if the doctor failed to perform a test to detect a fetal heartbeat. A physician does not violate this law if they performed a test for a fetal heartbeat and did not detect a fetal heartbeat.

What is unique about the Texas law?

The Texas Heartbeat Act prohibits enforcement of the law by government officials. Instead, the law allows any private citizen — even those who do not live in Texas — to bring a civil lawsuit against any person who performs or induces an abortion in violation of this law or who knowingly engages in conduct that aids or abets the performance or inducement of an abortion, including paying for or reimbursing the costs of an abortion through insurance or otherwise, regardless of whether the person knew or should have known that the abortion would be performed or induced in violation of this law. 

If the plaintiffs win their case, the court is directed to force the defendant to pay costs and attorney’s fees, pay statutory damages in an amount of not less than $10,000 for each abortion that the defendant performed or induced, and award injunctive relief sufficient to prevent the defendant from violating this law or engaging in acts that aid or abet violations of this law. 

Which states have passed fetal heartbeat legislation?

Fetal heartbeat bills have passed in five states: Arkansas, North Dakota, Iowa, Kentucky, and Texas.

They have failed to pass in 12 states: Alabama, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Wyoming.

They have been proposed or re-proposed after failing to pass in 13 states: Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia.

A federal Heartbeat Protection Act was also proposed in 2017.

What is the status of the legislation in the other states that passed fetal heartbeat laws?

Currently, all four fetal heartbeat laws have been blocked by the courts. A lawsuit has also been filed to block the Texas law before it takes effect on Sep. 1, 2021.

However, the the Supreme Court recently agreed to hear a case involving a Mississippi law that bans abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Pro-life activists are hopeful the ruling in that case could limit or oveturn Roe v. Wade