FORT WORTH, Texas — Last Wednesday, Lila Rose, the founder of anti-abortion group Live Action, euphorically tweeted, “It’s a beautiful day in Texas, which is on its way to being abortion-free.”
Her statement was hyperbolic, but only slightly.
On Sept. 1, Texas’ fetal heartbeat law took effect, exposing anyone who assists in the procurement of an abortion after the unborn child’s heartbeat is detected (with the exception of the pregnant woman, who is explicitly protected) to civil liability.
Effectively, this prohibits abortions at or beyond six weeks of pregnancy (when the majority of abortions occur), except in cases of medical emergency.
Texas’ law has not been blocked by the courts, in no small part due to its unusual construction.
It relies on private citizens instead of state actors to enforce abortion restrictions. The legal concept is not new — it’s used in instances of Medicaid fraud, for example — but unique in this area of the law.
Chelsey Youman, Texas state director of the anti-abortion group the Human Coalition, says this approach offers a meaningful way for society to engage in the cause of protecting innocent life.
But the mechanism has a practical application, too.
For years, abortion providers have been successful at blocking conventional attempts to regulate doctors and clinics — like establishing certain standards of care — by cherry-picking courts willing to find that almost any regulation on abortion constitutes an undue burden. This usually happens well before the law is even enforced.
But because the Texas law empowers private individuals to sue those who “aid and abet” in an abortion only after one has occurred, it cleverly denies the law’s opponents any chance of legal success on a pre-enforcement challenge. It exposes anyone providing an abortion after the law’s enactment to financial penalties and potentially even loss of licenses.
It’s why the law’s challengers have had such difficulty getting a court to stop it, and why their bizarre eleventh-hour appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was summarily and rightly dismissed on procedural grounds.
It’s also why the law actually works.
Abortion clinics have already seen “dramatic drops in patients on their schedules,” according to The New York Times, while “pregnancy crisis centers, where anti-abortion groups offer pregnancy services, reported surges in phone calls and walk-ins.”
For opponents of abortion, especially those who have devoted themselves for decades to protecting the unborn, seeing the fruits of their labors is a tremendous and joyous relief.
But the celebration can be only momentary. Great victory requires great responsibility.
And as the influx in calls to organizations that seek to help women through — and not out of — crisis pregnancies suggests, the work is now really beginning.
There is good news there, too.
In states like Texas, a vast and often underappreciated network of nonprofits, clinics, church groups and medical professionals have already been serving women for years.
Youman said the state now spends $100 million on abortion-alternative services including medical care, counseling and other forms of assistance. The Human Coalition has a network of 2,700 clinics around the country, outnumbering abortion clinics 20:1.
And while a loud but vanishingly small group of abortion-supporting activists “shout their abortions” with pride and insist that few if any women suffer regret or feelings of loss after aborting a child, Youman says that three-quarters of the women walking into her group’s clinics admit that if they had other options or assistance, they would much prefer to parent their unplanned children.
“We seek to understand and love the women and their children,” she said.
For these organizations, whose work it is to come alongside women in crisis and to help stabilize their circumstances, the mission (at least in Texas) has become that much bigger.
If and, hopefully, when Roe v. Wade is overturned and regulation of abortion is returned to the states, anti-abortion groups will again need to redouble their efforts.
They will also need to recalibrate their legal strategy. As even staunch conservatives have pointed out, Texas’ heartbeat law is far from ideal, especially in a post-Roe context. It should not necessarily become the model for other states.
But today, it will save the lives of an estimated 150 children in Texas.
That is reason enough for celebration and a reminder that this is where the pro-life cause begins in earnest.
Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Readers may send her email at email@example.com.