Life Post Roe: Understanding Houston Abortion Laws

There’s the noncitizen in the Rio Grande Valley, who can’t risk passing through three checkpoints on the way to the abortion clinic in McAllen. Teenagers who aren’t ready to become parents. Loving moms who can’t afford another child. Those with the means to travel to nearby states like New Mexico or Colorado or Kansas. Physicians who weigh the personal price they might pay to help their patients. Abortion has touched the lives of countless Texans, long before the Supreme Court of the United States overturned Roe v. Wade last year.

“Texas got an early dose of post-Roe reality because SB8 went into effect September of 2021,” explains Caroline Duble, political director at Avow Texas, a nonprofit abortion advocacy group based in Austin. SB8, called the Texas Heartbeat Act, bans abortions after detection of fetal cardiac activity—essentially at six weeks, before many people even realize they’re pregnant. Then two months after the demise of Roe v. Wade on June 24, 2022, Texas’s trigger laws criminalizing the act of performing an abortion went into effect. These laws have no exceptions for rape, incest, or non-viable birth defects.

While the legal ramifications are jarringly clear for medical professionals caught performing abortions in Texas and those who provide aid in other ways—life in prison and a civil penalty of at least $100,000 among them—some physicians, Duble notes, still feel comfortable prescribing medication like mifepristone and misoprostol to ease an in-progress miscarriage. Others are now advised to turn those patients away and refer them elsewhere. The association alone makes those drugs a legal landmine.

“Patients are being left to the whims of lawyers who work for hospitals, who are trying to navigate the law and whether or not they want any liabilities,” Duble says. And although Texas’s laws don’t penalize a pregnant person seeking an abortion, “it puts people at risk for surveillance, investigation, arrest, prosecution.”

That’s caused many Texas medical experts and reproductive organizations to simply go dark on the subject. Interview requests sent to five Houston-area health care organizations and three abortion funds went unanswered. Texas service providers, seemingly in concordance, have paused operations as they evaluate the impact of the 2022 Supreme Court decision.

This legal gray area has forced many Houstonians seeking abortions to find other ways to access the care they need. It’s not illegal to travel out of Texas for an abortion, Duble notes. Neither is ordering abortion pills. But those options require privileges and resources like money, time, transportation, and personal safety. Often these are insurmountable barriers for poor women or Black, Brown, trans, and queer populations.

On a local level, the fight has gone back to where it started: politics. A few days after the trigger laws went into effect, mayor Sylvester Turner stated Houston would not prioritize the use of resources to pursue criminal complaints related to abortions or miscarriage. Harris County district attorney Kim Ogg responded that she’d “applaud that move,” though has yet to officially expound on that sentiment.

For advocacy groups like Avow, the ultimate push is to destigmatize abortion and to back state legislators who understand the cause. The voter support on these issues, Duble notes, is there. “Abortion is a winning issue, especially in a city like Houston.” But until that day comes, the reality for so many Texans is forever changed post Roe.

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