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Texas Law Could Be An Unprecedented Blow To Abortion Rights

NOEL KING, HOST:

A new state law goes into effect today in Texas. It will ban abortions as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. There was a legal challenge, but the Supreme Court did not block the law from taking effect at midnight. Here's NPR's Wade Goodwyn.

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: The law is a new strategy for abortion rights opponents. It targets anyone who helps or even considers helping a woman obtain an abortion after the first six to seven weeks of pregnancy, which means abortion services will essentially come to a halt in Texas.

JOHN SEAGO: Yeah, I mean, this is a phenomenal victory for the movement.

GOODWYN: John Seago is the legislative director for Texas Right to Life. He and his colleagues have been fighting for this moment for decades.

SEAGO: This is crossing a bridge that has been impossible up to this point. Other states have failed in forcing their heartbeat bills. And it looks like Texas is on the cusp of having a really significant victory where we're going to see tens of thousands of lives saved.

GOODWYN: Now anyone can file lawsuits for at least $10,000 against someone who they suspect might have given aid or abortion information to a woman who's been pregnant for more than roughly six weeks.

SEAGO: And so we are the largest pro-life organization in the state. We have a network of pro-life attorneys and pro-life activists who even now give us tips and send us information that may lead one to believe that the law is being broken by the abortion industry.

GOODWYN: Abortion rights advocates have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to block the law. Amy Hagstrom Miller is the CEO of one of the litigants, Whole Woman's Health, which provides gynecological and abortion services to women throughout the state.

AMY HAGSTROM MILLER: The vast majority of our patients don't even know they're pregnant at that point in the pregnancy, so it would mean denying upwards of 90% of the people who are seeking abortion care services, abortions in Texas.

GOODWYN: Abortion providers say they will abide by the law. Last night, as the clock ticked towards midnight, Miller said her patients were frantic.

HAGSTROM MILLER: I still have 30 more patients on site right now in our Fort Worth clinic. Our physician and staff are planning to be there up until midnight if they need to be before this law goes into effect. This is real. I'm sad. I'm angry. And I'm shocked.

GOODWYN: Anti-abortion advocates believe they've hit upon a new legal strategy that could change the balance of power. Elizabeth Sepper is a religious liberty and health law professor at the University of Texas School of Law.

ELIZABETH SEPPER: It really tips the balance in favor of private vigilantes in ways that mean they can file lawsuits harassing people based on suspicion that they might've donated to an abortion fund, for example, or driven someone to an abortion. There is even a provision that says you can sue someone for intending to engage in conduct that aids or abets an abortion. That's a thoughtcrime. That's a minority report. Even if you don't engage in that crime, if you intend to, there can be a lawsuit against you.

GOODWYN: Abortion rights advocates here warn their colleagues around the country not to dismiss Texas Senate Bill 8 as a legal tactic that could only happen in the Lone Star State.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.