By Julia McCoy ’22 & Madeline Morkin ’22
Texas Senate Bill 8 came into effect on Sept. 1, 2021 and quickly drew headlines as one of the most restrictive “heartbeat bills” the country has ever seen. This bill’s draconian assertions far exceed the traditional abortion debates that we often discuss. Going beyond just defining life at the detection of a heartbeat, this bill seeks to encourage vigilantism, hatred against, and criminalization of women and those who support them in their endeavours to have an abortion.
The prohibition of a woman to terminate a pregnancy after just six weeks becomes an issue when considering that even a birth control pill taken flawlessly and consistently will still inevitably fail 1-2 percent of the time. Additionally, 45-49 percent of pregnancies are unplanned. So, the new Texas abortion law expects women to make life-altering decisions in a six-week period that many are unaware they have even begun.
The Texas law covertly argues that women are incapable of making decisions for themselves by themselves. A woman’s choice is not considered at any point in this bill; not even whether or not she chose to engage in sexual relations. Texas’ new law bans abortion regardless of how a woman becomes pregnant. This means that a victim of rape or incest is going to be forced to carry the child to term, which could have significant impacts on her physical and mental health. So, even in cases where a woman might not consent to sex, she will be forced to carry and birth the child of her abuser.
What has led Texas to make such decisions about victims of rape? In a statement after the bill was passed, Governor Greg Abbott assured his constituents that Texas was doing everything in their power to “eliminate rape.” A valiant cause, no doubt, but certainly not an issue that can be solved overnight or by preventing women from getting an abortion as a result of rape. By saying this, governor Abbott undermines the difficulties that many rape survivors face in trying to hold their assaulter accountable.
The Department of Public Safety in Texas accounts for just under 15,000 reports of rape in the year 2019, with only 2,200 people arrested for rape in the same year. Given the staggering discrepancy in these numbers, the question arises: how can Governor Abbott rid his state of rape if its existence has never been approached vigilantly? If there was a feasible way for rape to be altogether eliminated in our society, it would be welcomed. But until it is, it seems wrong to deny women the resources they may need to deal with the effects of sexual assault.
The only circumstances in which a woman will be allowed to terminate her pregnancy in Texas are in the cases that it could “endanger the mother’s life or lead to ‘substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function.’” Thus, women will need to prove that their lives are on the line in order to have any access to safe abortion.
Although, in either of the previously stated special cases which have both been deemed excusable to Texas’ new abortion law, women may still be denied access to safe abortions by the subjective opinion of certain law enforcement and judicial officials—many of whom are men and will never need to make this decision for themselves. So, for the women whose “endangerment” or “substantial and irreversible impairment” are not certified as valid enough to receive legal abortions, there then also becomes a bigger likelihood that they seek unsafe or illegal means of termination of their pregnancy elsewhere.
Additionally, SB8 puts a bounty, beginning at $10,000, directly on the head of any person getting or performing an abortion past this 6-week period. In theory, this bounty was put into place to help lighten the burden on police when they should be focused on enforcing other laws, making authorities aware of violations of the abortion ban. In reality, it pins people against each other by deputizing the citizen and introducing incentives for even the suspicion of an abortion. This subjects pregnant women to significant abuse. Vigilantism, in general, is extremely problematic because lawful authority essentially is turned over to untrained citizens, without many guidelines. Thus, by placing the power into the hands of the people, there are bound to be some citizens – emboldened by this newfound deputism – that feel more inclined towards reward than regard for their fellow citizens. In this case, women’s private lives are put on display and in danger for a quick buck.
If a bounty has been implemented as an incentive to protect the lives of any and all people, specifically unborn children in this case, why has it been applied to SB8 and not other crimes, like those of speeding or drinking and driving, which also have the potential of causing potential and real harm to others? In any case, legally supported vigilantism, which encourages untrained citizens to enforce laws at the expense of other citizens, is extremely dangerous territory for the U.S.
We don’t have to conjure up an imaginary dystopian future to see what the consequences of a law of this nature could be. Authoritarian approaches to abortion laws have been dangerous to women in countries where such laws have already been implemented. In 1998, El Salvador banned abortion in its entirety and has enforced prison sentences of up to thirty-five years for women who are accused of having an abortion. This stringent policy has led to 140 women being charged in the small country. Doctors are obligated to call the police if they suspect that a woman has had an abortion. The issue with this, however, is that there is no noticeable difference between a women’s body after an abortion versus what it would look like after a miscarriage. As such, women have been imprisoned for a tragedy they could not control. Not only do they have to deal with the physical and emotional ramifications of a miscarriage, they are forced to do so in prison. The introduction of vigilantism in SB8 serves as an example of what happens when vigilantism is prioritized over a woman’s safety and health.
Despite being in effect for less than a month, individuals are already trying to reap the rewards of an illustrious $10,000 bounty. In the first case, Oscar Stilley, a disbarred attorney from Arkansas is filing a suit against Dr. Alan Braid, who publicly stated that he performed an abortion in opposition to the law. Stilley has seemingly no connection to the case itself, Dr. Braid, or the state of Texas. So, why is he filing a suit against a doctor with whom he has no prior relationship? As Irving Gorstein of the Georgetown Law Center said, “this person seems to be somebody who has no objection to abortions. He just wants to earn a bounty.” The possible ramifications of this are staggering. Will Texas courts be able to handle an onslaught of citizens – some with no relation to their state – looking to take advantage of this newfound bounty?
Texas did a lot more than subvert the precedent set by Roe v. Wade. The state has created a culture in which neighbors are asked to turn on their neighbors and instilled a mentality that no one can feel safe in making decisions for themselves. If an Uber driver can get arrested for dropping a passenger off at a clinic, we must consider: what comes next?