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In his 113- page order blocking the enforcement of Texas' six week abortion ban law, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman called the law “an unprecedented and aggressive scheme to deprive its citizens of a significant and well-established constitutional right.” But with the state of Texas appealing the order, long term abortion access remains in question. Stephanie Sy reports from Austin, Texas.
A federal judge in Texas last night temporarily blocked the enforcement of the state's new law that bans abortion as early as six weeks.
President Biden's Department of Justice requested the injunction against the law, known as SB-8. In his 113-page order, Judge Robert Pitman called the law — quote — "an unprecedented and aggressive scheme to deprive its citizens of a significant and well-established constitutional right."
As the state of Texas appeals, some abortion providers have resumed abortion care that the law had banned.
Stephanie Sy recently traveled to Austin and found that, in the five weeks that the law was enforced, it impacted hundreds of women.
In the last five weeks, SB-8 made Texas the hardest place for a woman to get an abortion in America.
Marva Sadler, Whole Woman’s Health :
To basically be an enforcer of a rule that I don't agree with.
Marva Sadler is the director of clinical services for the nonprofit Whole Woman's Health in Texas, an abortion provider.
It's been extremely emotional and taxing on our staff and our doctors.
SB-8 bans abortion as soon as a flutter of cardiac activity can be detected in an ultrasound. That's as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. Most women may not even know they're pregnant by then.
The Texas law gives women an extremely narrow window to legally get an abortion.
This just happened to a patient today who was here last week. She'd had a positive pregnancy test at home. She came in. We could not see anything on an ultrasound. We could not find it an intrauterine pregnancy, which means that she was just too early.
So I was not able to continue forward with the patient last week. She came back today for a follow-up exam. Not only can we see her pregnancy, but there are fetal heart tones. And so we did have to turn her away.
She got caught in a place where she was too early last week, and now she's too late?
She was too early last week, and, six days later, she's too late.
On a typical day, before SB-8, this Whole Woman's Health clinic in Austin would be packed. Today, it's been pretty quiet. They have seen a 70 percent drop in abortions procedures at clinics across the state compared to last year.
Some women are now crossing state lines to seek abortions.
Dr. Joshua Yap, Planned Parenthood:
Oftentimes, they're tired. They're exhausted. But, at the same time, they're so relieved that they can still get an abortion, even if they can't get it in Texas.
Dr. Joshua Yap is a physician at Planned Parenthood in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Dr. Joshua Yap:
We have one patient who got off work at 10:00 p.m. and then, at midnight, got in the car, drove from Houston all the way to here, which is about a nine-hour drive.
Since the Texas law went into effect, 300 women from the Lone Star State have sought abortion care at the two Oklahoma clinics, leading to a bottleneck.
Huge number of Texas patients, often over 50 percent of our panel, which means that there's not a lot of space for Oklahoma patients who live here.
Some days, we will stay as late as two-and-a-half-hours after clinic hours to make sure we can accommodate them.
But for many women, traveling out of state is not an option.
A single mother who is working at a job at $8 an hour, who doesn't have PTO or days to take off of work, who doesn't have an infrastructure or a support system already, the feat of getting out of state is impossible for her. It will affect women of color and low-income women the most.
Rebecca Parma, Texas Right to Life: We want to see pre-born children and their mothers protected from abortion.
Rebecca Parma works at Texas Right to Life, which opposes abortion. They helped draft the bill.
We believe this bill is superior.
The law empowers private citizens. Anyone can report violations and sue a fellow citizen in civil court. It's this legal maneuver that experts say allowed the law to deflect its first challenge at the Supreme Court.
There's even a cash incentive to encourage citizens' actions. Plaintiffs who successfully sue are awarded $10,000, an enticement that Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor wrote in her dissenting opinion effectively deputizes the state's citizens as bounty hunters.
The citizens enforcement part of the law is one reason Judge Robert Pitman gave for blocking its enforcement last night. He also wrote that SB-8 was a deliberate attempt by lawmakers "to preclude review by federal courts that have the obligation to safeguard the very rights the statute likely violates."
He was referring to the constitutional right to an abortion protected by the 1973 Supreme Court ruling Roe vs. Wade. This Austin clinic and others across the state have already lost staff, who fear legal ramifications.
Anyone from the physician to the Uber driver taking the patient to get an abortion could be legally culpable under SB-8.
Who is the real target of SB-8? Is it women trying to get an abortion in Texas?
Absolutely not. Women in Texas who seek an abortion or obtain an illegal abortion, a lawsuit cannot be brought against them, so they are protected under this law. The target is the abortion industry, those who are profiting off killing pre-born children.
The law provides an exception only for women facing medical emergencies.
There is no exception for women who are victims of rape or incest, no exceptions. How do you justify that ethically, to force a woman to have the baby of her rapist?
Yes. Yes. Those situations are heartbreaking and tragic.
At the end of the day, the question we ask at Texas Right to Life and what applies in this law is, it all comes down to, what is a pre-born child? There are human beings from that moment of fertilization worthy of moral and legal protection, and that is regardless of the means of conception.
The divide in beliefs on abortion in America is deep, but on how to enforce restrictions, much less so.
A new "PBS NewsHour"/NPR/Marist poll shows one third of Americans support a law that bans abortion once cardiac activity is detected, but 74 percent of Americans oppose allowing private citizens to enforce such a law.
Outrage over SB-8 among women's reproductive justice activists has spread across the country, from Washington to San Francisco and back in Austin, Texas, where Zoraima Pelaez lives. She's a reproductive rights advocate who had an abortion a decade ago.
Zoraima Pelaez, Texas:
I was working full time, going to school part time in community college, and I learned that I was pregnant.
I thought of my sisters immediately. My sister, my older sister and many of my loved ones were young mothers. And I saw how much they struggled to raise their children as single young mothers in safe, sustainable environments. And I knew that I wasn't ready emotionally, financially to be a mom.
She says she never regretted her decision. When Pelaez had her abortion in Texas, the procedure was stigmatized, but accessible.
I was passed six weeks, definitely. I would not have been able to get abortion care in the state, and I don't know if I would have been able to afford to go out of state.
The new Texas law is effectively a ban on almost all abortions in the state, and that's what the people behind it intended.
We're estimating that between 100 and 150 pre-born children and their mothers are being spared from abortion every day in Texas while this law is in effect.
For now, the law is on hold. But the state of Texas is appealing.
And Whole Woman's Health resumed abortion care for women up to 18 weeks pregnant today.
Amy Hagstrom Miller, Whole Woman’s Health:
We have reopened our schedule to expand beyond that six-week limit in our Texas clinics already.
Advocates for women's right to choose are holding their breath during what may be only a temporary reprieve.
How do you think things would have been different for you if you had been unable to terminate your pregnancy?
I know almost for a fact that I would not have become the first person in my family to graduate from college, that I would not be in law school right now, and I would probably not have met my husband and on the verge of starting a family of my own on my own terms.
Instead, for millions of Texas women of childbearing age, the terms will be set by how the next court and likely eventually the Supreme Court interprets SB-8.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy in Austin.
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Alex D'Elia is a politics production assistant for the PBS NewsHour. She can be reached at Adelia@newshour.org or on Twitter @AlexDEliaNews
Stephanie Sy is a PBS NewsHour correspondent and serves as anchor of PBS NewsHour West. Throughout her career, she served in anchor and correspondent capacities for ABC News, Al Jazeera America, CBSN, CNN International, and PBS NewsHour Weekend. Prior to joining NewsHour, she was with Yahoo News where she anchored coverage of the 2018 Midterm Elections and reported from Donald Trump’s victory party on Election Day 2016.
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