“Things accelerated with the sonogram bill,” said Joe Pojman, executive director of the Texas Alliance for Life, an anti-abortion group that lobbies at the Capitol. “I think members got more confidence that these measures could pass and that they would be rewarded and not punished in general elections — and they have certainly been rewarded.”
Before SB 8 went into effect, a woman could have an abortion in Texas up to 22 weeks from her last menstrual period, a limit put in place during the 2013 legislative session.
Prior to that point, White said the focus of anti-abortion legislation was making it more difficult for women to obtain an abortion by enacting new requirements before the procedure could happen.
House Bill 2 in 2013 created the 22-week ban and imposed restrictions on abortion-inducing medication, but it focused primarily on “targeted regulation of abortion providers” as a means of reducing access.
The bill required abortion doctors to obtain admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the facility, and it said all facilities that offer the procedure must adhere to the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers.
“This was all framed as language that would make abortion safer, playing on this myth that abortion is not safe,” White said.
The law was a flashpoint in the abortion debate in Texas. Providers said it would upend the abortion landscape in the state and lead to the closure of more than half of the abortion clinics in the state. Abortion rights advocates said it would create barriers to access the procedure.
It drew national attention when then-Sen. Wendy Davis staged a marathon filibuster to kill the bill during a special legislative session. The event drew hundreds of protesters to the statehouse. But the Legislature later passed the measure in a new special session.
“House Bill 2 in 2013 was very substantial,” Pojman said. “Texas, I don’t think, had ever seen a grassroots response — on both sides — to any bill in its history that I’ve ever read about of that magnitude. There were literally thousands of people who signed up in favor or against that bill in the (House and Senate) committees. It was just incredible.”
The bill was ultimately signed into law, but it was immediately challenged in the courts. In 2016, a divided U.S. Supreme Court struck down the central provisions of the law requiring admitting privileges and heightened safety requirements at clinics, stating that their effect would be to create an improper barrier for women seeking an abortion.
But, in some ways the law was successful. More than half the state’s abortion providers shut down and never reopened.
Since then, the push to restrict access to abortion has only intensified.
“It has really been since 2016 that there were a lot more concerted efforts,” White said. “We saw some of this percolating before, with these earlier gestational bans, but we’re seeing them come up a lot more often in recent years across the country.”
n Texas, additional restrictions have been adopted to make it harder for minors to obtain abortions and to require the burial or cremation of fetal remains after an abortion. Certain types of abortion procedures also have been banned.
Some laws remain tied up in court battles, but others are in effect. White said the result has been numerous abortion providers closing clinics, leaving low-income women in certain areas without access to local and affordable health care options.
Lawmakers this summer also approved legislation to prohibit physicians from prescribing abortion-inducing medication to women who are more than seven weeks pregnant, down from 10 weeks allowed under current law. The proposal is awaiting Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature.
“I’m really tired of every single session having to come here and debate one more obstacle to a woman having the right to choose what happens to her own body and her own destiny,” said Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, during debate in the House over the bill.
Pojman said the goal of abortion opponents has always been clear: “to protect unborn babies completely, throughout pregnancy from abortion, while providing ample, compassionate alternatives to abortion.”
For Texas Alliance for Life, SB 8 is a step in the right direction, and Pojman said he is “delighted” it has been allowed to go into effect. But the bigger priority is overturning Roe v. Wade.
Lawmakers this year approved a “trigger bill” that would allow Texas to ban or limit abortion to the extent allowed by a future ruling by the Supreme Court.
“If (Roe v. Wade) is overturned, there will be a law that completely protects unborn babies beginning at conception in Texas,” Pojman said.
Until the legal battle over SB 8 plays out — a sharply divided Supreme Court let the law stand for now — White said it is hard to know exactly how it will affect future abortion regulations in Texas and across the country.
“Will it be possible for states like Texas to continue to do things like this?” she said. “Will this just be the new normal, where you can only get an abortion essentially before six weeks of pregnancy? Will there be stronger protections in place to ensure that people have access to care without unnecessary barriers? We don’t know.”