Pro-life leaders applaud Texas Supreme Court ruling upholding Heartbeat Act

Ultrasound heartbeat Credit liseykina Shutterstock CNA liseykina/Shutterstock

The Texas Supreme Court ended a final challenge to the state’s Heartbeat Act Friday, leaving in place one of the nation’s most robust pro-life laws.

Pro-life leaders hailed the ruling, in a case brought by the state’s abortion providers, as a major victory. 

“This is a big win for children in Texas,” Lila Rose, president of the pro-life group Live Action, said in a statement. “The law will continue to protect children with a detectable heartbeat from the violence of abortion."

Conversely, opponents of the act decried the ruling as a further erosion of a legal framework in place since the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide. In a tweet, the American Civil Liberty Union called the decision “a devastating blow for abortion rights in Texas and across the country.”

The case centered on the unusual way pro-life legislators in Texas crafted the law to dramatically narrow the window for legal abortions in the state and still withstand a constitutional challenge.

Roe expressly bars states from restricting a woman’s access to an abortion prior to the stage at which a fetus can survive outside the womb, which the Supreme Court determined to be 24 to 28 weeks into a pregnancy.

The Texas law, which took effect last year, bans abortions at a much earlier stage of gestation: after the detection of a fetal heartbeat, which typically happens at around six weeks into pregnancy.

The U.S. Supreme Court since Roe repeatedly has enjoined state officials from enforcing such restrictions. What makes the Heartbeat Act groundbreaking is that it gives state officials no enforcement powers.

Instead, the law leaves enforcement of the act exclusively to private citizens, who can file a civil lawsuit against anyone attempting to procure, perform, or “abet” an unlawful abortion, and receive up to $10,000 per violation, plus legal fees.

Whole Women’s Health and other Texas abortion providers argued in their lawsuit that the law could be struck down because a number of state officials, including the attorney general, state judges, and court clerks, indirectly enforce it by processing and adjudicating these civil suits.

In a  8 to 1 decision on Dec. 10, the U.S. Supreme Court largely disagreed, but it did allow the plaintiffs to proceed with their lawsuit more narrowly against state medical licensing officials, who have the authority under state laws to discipline physicians and other licensed medical professionals who violate state laws.

The plaintiffs maintained these officials can, in effect, enforce the act, but the Texas Supreme Court disagreed, saying it found nothing in the legislation itself granting licensing officials that authority “either directly or indirectly.” You can read the full decision here.

Instead, the decision noted, the act expressly excludes state officials from those who can bring civil suits to enforce the act.

“We agree that these laws grant the state agencies and their executives broad authority to enforce other state laws — including abortion-restriction laws — through the professional-disciplinary process, at least unless the other laws provide otherwise,” the decision states. “But we conclude that the Heartbeat Act expressly provides otherwise.”

Pro-life leaders believe the decision will lead more pro-life state legislatures to follow Texas’ lead, a process that's already underway in Florida, South Dakota, Ohio, and a growing number of other states.

“The court recognized what we already knew: this law is constitutional,” Chelsey Youman, Texas state director and national legislative advisor with Human Coalition Action, a pro-life group, said in a statement Friday.

“It is the most successful piece of pro-life legislation in 50 years, and should be replicated everywhere in states that are serious about rescuing preborn lives,” she added.

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