AUSTIN (KXAN) — Gov. Greg Abbott, surrounded by members of the Texas Legislature, signed into law Wednesday morning one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country.

The signing of Senate Bill 8, or the Texas heartbeat bill, ensures Texas will be at the center of the new legal challenges to Roe v. Wade. It’s supposed to take effect in September.

The law prohibits abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, and while the bill doesn’t specify a timeframe, fetal heartbeats can be detected as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. In many instances, women don’t even know they are pregnant at the time. It also allows anyone to sue a doctor who performs or assists in an abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected.

Whole Woman’s Health and Whole Woman’s Health Alliance are currently plaintiffs in three lawsuits against Texas, which all challenge state restrictions on abortions. Both are now working to block the bill signed into law Wednesday.

“This law creates a lot of hostility and surveillance and a difficult environment for providers,” said Amy Hagstrom Miller, founder, president and CEO. “It allows any citizen to bring a lawsuit against providers or people who help someone they know and love access an abortion, so it creates a lot of tension and fear and intimidation, which I think is the purpose.”

Whole Woman’s Health and Whole Woman’s Health Alliance challenged two restrictions of House Bill 2 in 2013. The legislation required all facilities performing abortions to meet hospital-like standards. That included minimum sizes for rooms and doorways.

The Supreme Court overturned part of the bill, and the court also struck down a separate provision requiring doctors have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of an abortion clinic. Had the court upheld that provision, there would have been as few as 10 legal clinics statewide.

It took Whole Woman’s Health and Whole Woman’s Health Alliance three years for the challenges to make it to the Supreme Court and win.

“During a time a law does go into effect, it can have great damage to people’s access to abortion care services while we fight the law in the court,” Miller said.

Support for the bill

Supporters of the legislation said this is an historic step, as they see state lawmakers add more money and programs to help women and unborn children.

“It’s making a strong statement that we think that the unborn child, whose heart is beating, and even before, should be protected by the state of Texas,” said Joe Pojman, Ph.D., executive director of Texas Alliance for Life.

Abbott signed the law to loud cheers from the bill’s 91 sponsors. Abbott called the bill bipartisan, but 90 of those co-sponsors are Republicans with the lone Democrat being Sen. Eddie Lucio. Lucio and Rep. Ryan Guillen were the only two Democrats to vote for the bill.

“Millions of children lose their right to life every year because of abortion,” Abbott said. “In Texas, we work to save those lives.”

The bill passed through the Texas Senate 18-12 with one senator abstaining. It passed on third vote in the Texas House 83-64 with two Democrats abstaining. Every Republican lawmaker voted for the bill.

Analysts said the law has a steep hill to climb to survive state or federal court challenges.

“I think it’s unlikely that before Sept. 1 that there would be action on this, other than action to restrict this, and I don’t think it will go into effect on Sept. 1,” said Jeremi Suri, Ph.D., a professor of history and public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. “These laws have generally been restricted at the court level. Almost none of them have gone into effect.” 

Legal experts said there will likely be several lawsuits from civil liberties groups and women’s health groups on practical and legal grounds.

Abortion advocates call the bill one of the most extreme restrictions nationwide. Diana Gomez, the advocacy manager for Progress Texas, said it’s unconstitutional.

“Let me be clear: Abortion is health care, and it is still legal in Texas,” Gomez said. “This six-week abortion ban is unconstitutional, and others like it have been struck down by federal courts across the nation.

“Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land and regardless of whatever bill Gov. Abbott signs, no law will stop abortions from happening. It’s unfortunate that anti-abortion politicians were more focused on restricting access to essential medical care this session than providing COVID relief and tackling our failed power grid.”