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Texas Heartbeat Act could be “really problematic” for doctors

“Doctors have come out and said, ‘If you pass this it puts us at danger of lots of frivolous lawsuits,’ and lawyers have said this looks like chaos.”
Updated: May. 7, 2021 at 7:03 PM CDT
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BRYAN, Texas (KBTX) - State legislators are on the verge of passing sweeping restrictions for abortions in Texas. State Senate Bill 8, would prohibit women from getting an abortion after a fetal heartbeat can be detected even in cases of rape or incest. It would also allow nearly anyone — including people with no connection to the doctor or the woman — to sue abortion providers and those who help others get an abortion.

Texas A&M political science expert Kirby Goidel says the bill could potentially open a Pandora’s box of problems for healthcare providers and beyond.

“The language is really vague because it deals with aiding and abetting,” Goidel explained, “so potentially it could be doctors and medical providers, clergy, domestic violence and rape counselors. All sorts of people could potentially be sued under this. The language here is really vague and really problematic.”

The “unprecedented,” “extraordinary,” and exceptionally broad” language in the bills means “family members, clergy, domestic violence, and rape crisis counselors, or referring physicians could be subject to tens of thousands of dollars in liability to total strangers,” nearly 400 Texas lawyers told House lawmakers in an open letter circulated by abortion-rights advocates.

In a separate letter, more than 200 physicians said the bill would place doctors “at risk of frivolous lawsuits” and create a “chilling effect” where providers are reticent to give information “out of fear of being sued.”

The Senate already passed the bill and the House voted to pass the bill yesterday. The upper chamber will need to review some changes the House made to the legislation before it’s sent to the governor. Gov. Abbott has already said that he looks forward to signing it.

Texans are divided. A recent survey by the Texas Tribune found that 40 percent of Texas voters label themselves “pro-life” and 41 percent as “pro-choice.” Broken down further, 56 percent of the pro-life group would permit abortions in cases of rape, incest, and when the life of the mother is threatened; and another 10 percent would allow them in other cases. And among the pro-choice respondents, 76 percent would permit abortions with no restrictions and 20 percent would put some limits on when the procedure is legal.

“We’re moving into an election year, and this session gives Republicans, the chance to focus on things like guns and abortion and voting,” Goidel explained, “so it’s not a surprise also the Texas Legislature regularly deals with abortion and so this is consistent with previous years. It’s a little bit more of a conservative certain effort this year but it’s consistent with the past.”

But the landmark Supreme Court decision in the 1973 Roe v. Wade protects a pregnant woman’s liberty to choose to have an abortion. Goidel says this law will test the new composition of the Supreme Court. Former President Donald Trump appointed three justices during his time in office. Justice Neil Gorsuch and Justice Brett Kavanaugh have previously ruled against abortion rights. Justice Amy Coney Barrett has indicated that she’s open to the idea of overruling Roe v. Wade but says she “doesn’t think” it will change. Goidel explained the addition of the three judges is one of the things that motivated lawmakers to pass the bill.

“They believe now it’s time to challenge Roe further,” Goidel said, “[the bill] is unlikely to overturn Roe but what we’ve seen over time is that the [Supreme Court] has allowed more and more restrictions on abortion access, and this would fall in and be consistent with those previous decisions.”

A legislative analysis by the state legislature found that a fetal heartbeat can be detected in as little as six weeks. Most abortions in Texas are currently prohibited after about 20 weeks, near the end of the first trimester. State Rep. Donna Howard said the sound of a fetal heartbeat around six weeks is actually “electrically induced flickering” of fetal tissue, according to medical experts. At that stage of development, she said there is no developed heart.

“When we talk about abortion, we talk about abortions being allowed through the end of the first trimester,” Goidel explained. “[Senate Bill 8] narrows that range but it’s not defined at all. At what point can we hear a heartbeat? Well, it differs from woman to woman. So there’s, there’s also vagueness in that language and, in many cases, unless a woman is trying to become pregnant, they may not know they’re pregnant at six weeks.”

More than 56,600 abortions were performed on Texas residents in 2019, according to state statistics, most of them in the first trimester. Opponents of the bill say the new restrictions would lead to more medically unsupervised abortions. Those can be dangerous to the mother’s health and, in some cases, can be fatal. According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 68,000 women from around the world die every year due to complications from unsafe induced abortions.

“Some people have pointed this out,” Goidel said, “abortions occur regardless of whether they are not they are legal. Who this really hurts is poor women who can’t go out of state and can’t find other avenues for for access to abortion.”

Lead sponsor of the bill State Rep. Shelby Slawson introduced the bill with a personal story. She said her mother was given a “dim prognosis of an abnormally developing baby” but carried the pregnancy to term — “and now 44 years and two days later, that little baby girl is standing in this chamber, her heart beating as strongly and as rapidly as it did all those years ago.” Goidel said state lawmakers, like Slawson, want to do everything in their power to prevent all abortions.

“The overall goal is to make abortion more difficult and to make it less accessible within the state of Texas,” Goidel said.

Watch the full interview in the player above.

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