The Supreme Court vs. the Heartbeat Act

Jade Lee ‘24

In 2016, former president Donald Trump had clearly expressed his support for banning abortion altogether, stating that he would choose conservative judges that would overturn Roe v. Wade, a landmark case that protects the abortion rights we have today in the United States. On the other hand, the current president, Joe Biden, had assured in his presidential campaign that his administration would definitely protect the right to get an abortion, wanting to pass federal laws that would further ensure this. [1]

Abortion laws always play some kind of controversial role, whether it’s related to the ethics behind abortion or if the current laws are just. Overall, there always seems to be some sort of divide whenever the topic is discussed. 

Despite the fact that President Joe Biden won the election of 2020, in September 2021, the Supreme Court decided not to intervene with Texas’s Senate Bill No.8, or better known as the ‘Heartbeat Act’. The act itself bans any abortions if fetal cardiac activity is detected, which is typically around the six week mark of the pregnancy. This makes it one of the most restrictive laws on abortion in the United States, and perhaps even the world as well. 

To further expand upon this, the law is enforced by civil lawsuits, not by criminal prosecution, meaning anyone can sue someone within the state of Texas who intends to perform or help perform an abortion after the embryo’s cardiac activity has been detected. Although the law exempts the person getting the abortion from being sued, it still doesn’t change the fact that anyone who tries to assist it can be sued. This includes a ride-hailing app driver who takes someone to an abortion clinic, or someone who donates to a fund that specifically assists those who are financially unable to afford an abortion. As long as it’s within the borders of Texas, the possibilities are endless. And to put all of this together, there’s also the prospect of $10,000, as the plaintiff can receive such a large sum if they are able to win the case. [2] 

Notably, the law also has no exceptions for victims of rape or incest. When Gov. Greg Abbott was asked by a reporter about this, he responded that they should work to prevent rape altogether, stating, “Rape is a crime, and Texas will work tirelessly to make sure that we eliminate all rapists from the streets of Texas by aggressively going out and arresting them and prosecuting them and getting them off the streets.” With these words, the Texas legislature was met with skepticism from both pro-life and pro-choice groups. [3] 

So how does this directly affect the people of Texas? 

Women are typically unaware that they are pregnant at the sixth week. In fact, before the ban was enacted, 85% of the abortions that took place in Texas were done after the six week period. (According to Texas Health and Human Services, over 54,000 abortions were performed in Texas in 2020) [6]

Clearly, with the new law, it’ll be more difficult for people to get an abortion, but that doesn’t mean it will stop people from finding other means, such as leaving the state. There are drawbacks to that too though, as those who are able to do this are, according to journalist Shefall Luthra, “people who have the means, who are able to travel, who don’t need childcare, who aren’t necessarily marginalized by income, by race, by immigration status, by all these factors.” 

Women who are unable to afford to leave the state will most likely have to turn to clandestine abortions, which are always unsafe. The World Health Organization revealed that 13.2% of maternal deaths are caused by risky abortions, and Texas imposing this act will most likely contribute to this percentage. 

Because of all of these factors, many cannot help but wonder whether the law is truly constitutional or not. Even Abortion Clinics themselves have made attempts to file for blocks against the law. 

Of course, the backlash for this was inevitable, particularly from those who had opposed the law earlier, and several of those in the legislature. [4] 

Even the President himself criticized the Supreme Court, “This law is so extreme it does not even allow for exceptions in the case of rape or incest, and it not only empowers complete strangers to inject themselves into the most private of decisions made by a woman — it actually incentivizes them to do so with the prospect of $10,000 if they win their case.” [5] 

America’s history is notably filled with long-running feuds between anti-abortionists and abortions, but a case that comes into mind is Roe v. Wade, a landmark decision that plays an important role in the current abortion rights laws we have today. The case single-handedly guaranteed women the right to abortion before viability, which tends to be the 24-week mark. Notably, if Roe v. Wade was overturned, 22 states would have the ability to restrict abortion access. 

Reactions to it were severe, with anti-abortion activists marching to Washington D.C every time its anniversary comes around, demanding for these laws to be suspended. Mississippi, a state that has recently put a ban on all abortions conducted after 15 weeks, has described Roe v. Wade as “egregiously wrong”. Even President Donald Trump attended an anti-abortion march in 2019, making him the first US president to both attend and speak at such a convention. Despite this, the reactions of these people do not indicate what the rest of the country thinks. According to a poll conducted in 2019, about 75% of the American people want Roe v. Wade to continue to stay enacted. 

Regardless, for the past few years, many states have tried to impose restrictions on abortion, with states such as Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, North Dakota, and Alabama passing a Heartbeat bill. Many other attempts have been made, although most ended up blocked by the federal courts. 

This year, however, the attempt wasn’t prevented. 

Despite all of the concerns from both anti abortion and pro-abortion groups, the Supreme Court decided not to intervene with the Heartbeat Act. As mentioned before, even with a new President elected, it doesn’t change the fact that the Supreme Court is dominantly conservative. There are only three liberal justices out of the nine currently appointed, with the latest nomination of conservative Amy Coney Barret in late 2020 shifting the already conservative-leaning court to a clear imbalance. It’s discernible that things have definitely changed for the Supreme Court, which means things have changed for everyone else as well.

The Texas Legislature is also moving to create more laws to restrict abortion access, such as a bill that restricts medication abortion access, [4] and considering how the Heartbeat Act wasn’t blocked, perhaps these laws will end up being passed. 

With this, several questions are raised on both sides in consideration of the future: What is the future of abortion rights in the country? Will more abortion restrictions be placed? Will the Supreme Court continue to allow more laws like Texas’s abortion ban? Just what will become of Roe v. Wade

Whatever the answers are, whatever the future may hold, it’s clear that it won’t be peaceful on either side. 

Sources: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6]