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Texas abortion rights activists and providers are worried after Friday's Supreme Court ruling

Thousands demonstrate during the "bans off our bodies" march in San Antonio on October 2, 2021.
Roberto Martinez
Texas Public Radio
Thousands demonstrate during the "bans off our bodies" march in San Antonio on Oct. 2, 2021.

Abortion rights advocates and providers across Texas say they fear the continued effects of the state’s restrictive abortion law, after Friday’s Supreme Court ruling that allowed the law to stay in effect.

The justices ruled that providers may sue the state of Texas over the law, which effectively bans the procedure after six weeks of pregnancy. But they stopped short of halting the law’s enforcement.

That means patients in the state will continue to have almost no access to the procedure, according to Dr. Bhavik Kumar, who has performed abortions in the past at Planned Parenthood's Center for Choice in Houston.

“Over and over again, we are forced to violate our conscience and our training and to turn away patients who need us,” Kumar said. “We must look them in the eye and tell them no when they beg us for help. And we have no good answers to their questions of why this is happening or when it might end.”

The Texas abortion rights group Avow also decried the justices’ decision, releasing a statement saying it could signal the end of abortion as a right protected under the Constitution.

“This decision sends a dangerous message that they are likely to overturn almost 50 years of precedent established in Roe v Wade next summer,” Avow Executive Director Aimee Arrambide said. “The Court has failed the majority of Americans and Texans who believe in the right to abortion care and the one in four women who will need abortion care in their lifetime by putting political ideology and extremism ahead of their duty to protect the constitution’s promise of liberty for all. “

Abortion rights opponents, meanwhile, celebrated Friday's ruling, seeing it as another sign that states will soon have the power to ban abortions.

“That is evidence right there,” Texans for Life Coalition President Kyleen Wright said of the ruling. “They no longer see this as a protected right for women, and that they are poised to right a wrong and to modernize our law."

SB 8 has been in effect since Sept. 1, and is the strictest abortion law in the country. It allows private citizens to sue anyone who either receives or facilitates an abortion in Texas after cardiac activity is detected in the fetus. That can be as early as six weeks — before most people know they’re pregnant.

The Supreme Court's ruling came a day after a state judge sided with abortion-rights advocates, saying the law violates the state's constitution. But that ruling narrowly applies to just the 14 lawsuits in that case, and has already been appealed.

Friday’s ruling was similarly narrow, according to Seema Mohapatra, a law professor at Southern Methodist University. While most of the justices did rule to allow providers the right to sue, it was more divided on who they should be allowed to sue: A 5-4 majority agreed that only four specific state licensing officials could be subject to a legal challenge, while finding that others — including Attorney General Ken Paxton — could not.

“They can go forward only against a small subset of state officials who really are not instrumental in the enforcement of this law,” Mohapatra told Texas Standard on Friday. “And if the goal of the providers is to have faith and confidence that they don't face an unlimited stream of these enforcement actions, even a successful injunction against those four state officials may not be sufficient.”

Chief Justice Roberts joined the three liberal justices on the court in dissent.

Some providers took solace in the fact that their rights to continue challenging the ban remained intact for now.

In a statement, Whole Woman's Health — the lead plaintiff in one of the two Texas cases the justices ruled on today — said the decision means there is "hope for an end to this horrific abortion ban."

"The legal back and forth has been excruciating for our patients and gut-wrenching for our staff," said Whole Woman’s Health president and CEO Amy Hagstrom Miller. "We've had to turn hundreds of patients away since this ban took effect, and the Supreme Court's refusal to block the law means the heartbreak doesn't end. Texans deserve abortion care in their own communities."

But in areas where abortions are more difficult to access, Friday’s news was grim.

Activists in South Texas border communities are seeing the effects of the state's recent anti-abortion rights law across the region. Now, they say they must continue struggling to help people — especially those who are undocumented

"It means that we have to continue living in this nightmare scenario that, you know, SB 8 is still very much in effect," said Nancy Cárdenas Peña, Texas state director for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice.

Peña said she's seen a rise in medication abortions as a result of the new law, and expects that will continue as people struggle to access abortion procedures in medical clinics.

And she said that while people have started leaving the state to access abortion services, many don’t have that option.

“When you’re talking about border communities, like the Rio Grande Valley, folks who do not have the documentation status to cross checkpoints cannot travel to other states to receive the abortion care that they need,” Peña said.

Additional reporting by KUT's Ashley Lopez.
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