Despite a new era of pro-choice feminism sweeping the world, Texas has passed the Senate Bill No. 8, bringing to life one of the restrictive abortion bans in the world. The law, pegged as the ‘foetal heartbeat bill’ disallows all abortions at the point of the ‘first detectable heartbeat’. In this post, I shall approach the law through two-prongs. First, I shall discuss the scientific and medical concerns associated with the bill. Then, I shall demonstrate how the law violates the internationally recognised human and reproductive rights of women, and disproportionately impacts specific groups of women.
What Does Science Say?
Science cannot conclusively establish when an embryo becomes a ‘human being’. Scholars have pointed out that there are as many as five different stages of development, each of which is a plausible beginning point for human life. What is clearly determinable, is the fourth stage, which is viability. Viability is defined as the stage when a foetus is able to survive outside the uterus successfully, with medical aid. This is the stage which was endorsed by the US Supreme Court in its decision in Roe v. Wade. With the currently available technology, this stage is achieved about 24 weeks into pregnancy. According to the existing precedent, abortion cannot be banned prior to this stage. Despite this, the Texas law adopts a contrary and unviable standard.
The Texas abortion Bill seems to be inspired from the misinformed Poterian thought that an abortion as early as six weeks into a pregnancy stops a beating heart. The very phrasing of the law, which aims to ban abortions after the ‘first detectable heartbeat’ is problematic. Such detection could happen as early as around six weeks into the pregnancy. However, the actual heart only begins to form around the eighth week of pregnancy and remains relatively unformed till the twentieth week. What is detected earlier is not a heartbeat, but electrical cardiac activity within the embryonic cells. It is also important to note that it is extremely possible for women to get past the six-week mark without being aware of their pregnancy. The new law shall restrict a woman’s abortion to approximately the time till six weeks of her pregnancy, and it is utterly misleading to make a pro-life argument on the basis of the ‘first detectable heartbeat’ standard.
Rights of the Women: An International Human Rights Perspective
Apart from being based on medical inconsistencies, the legislation channels an attack on the human rights of women. The right to privacy is a universally-recognised human right, enshrined under Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [ICCPR]. As noted by the Working Group on discrimination against women, a woman’s right to bodily autonomy and to make decisions about reproductive functions is central to her right to privacy. Even in V.D.A. v. Argentina, the United Nations Human Rights Committee [HRC] held that denying women access to abortion can be viewed as a violation of their right to privacy under the ICCPR. While the HRC has previously stated that States can adopt measures to regulate voluntary terminations of pregnancy, it also clarified that such measures should not affect the exercise of other rights under the Covenant by women. However, ensuring the right to privacy and bodily autonomy of women is to be viewed as a precondition to their enjoyment of all other rights. While the decisions of the HRC are not binding on state parties, it is argued that they must be considered in pursuance of good faith. Even if we turn a Nelson’s eye to such violations of a woman’s right to privacy for a moment, another problem quickly grabs our attention.
The legislation allows any person who ‘aids or abets’ a woman seek abortion in any capacity to be sued for a minimum amount of $10,000. Such a suit can be brought by any private citizen in Texas. This would incentivise citizen bounty hunters to unnecessarily interfere with a woman’s private bodily decision in order to make money. Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights expressly bars such arbitrary interference with one’s privacy. Moreover, the Special Rapporteur on torture, and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment expressly noted that extracting information from women seeking medical care or abortion for prosecution purposes shall amount to torture or ill-treatment under the United Nations Convention against Torture. By relying on citizens instead of state officers to enforce the law, the Legislature has made it complicated for the courts to strike down the legislation. Thus, the question before the Supreme Court recently was not whether the law is constitutional, but whether it can even be challenged in court. Subsequently, Texas has provided a model for other states to use the private citizen enforcement loophole, if they wish to sidestep judicial interference. To add salt to the injury, private citizens bringing a suit are not required to produce any evidence that the abortion took place after six weeks of pregnancy, and thus, legal abortions might also be subjected to such litigations.
Yet another issue with the Act is the disproportionate impact it will have on certain groups of women. Women in Texas can still seek abortions after six weeks in other states. However, this option shall not be equally accessible to all socio-economic groups. As a consequence, women from weaker economic backgrounds, women of colour, and undocumented women will face the brunt of this law. What is concerning is that it is precisely these women who form the majority of the cases of abortion. A 2019 study found that as much as 70% of the abortions in Texas were those provided to women of colour. Having to travel to another country to abort is not only non-affordable, but also against the rights of women. In the case of Whelan v. Ireland, the HRC held that compelling women to travel away from their home country to abort can amount to ‘cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment’ and shall be a violation of their right under Article 7 of the ICCPR.
What is even more disappointing is that the law does not create any exception for victims of rape. Since the brining of a lawsuit against anyone who aids or abets the abortion of such victims is so easy, rape crisis centres are concerned about whether they can continue to support survivors after an assault. Any support they provide might fall under the broad ambit of the word ‘aid’ within the Act, and hence open the possibility of them having to face a lawsuit. With the increasingly high number of rape cases reported in Texas every year, this will leave several survivors of rape with inadequate access to post-assault care.
The new legislation on several counts – from science to upholding the rights of women. Now that the Supreme Court has refused to interfere with the enactment of the law, one can only wonder how far-reaching the consequences shall be. If other states decide to continue on the same path set by Texas, then the reproductive rights of women which have been championed ever since Roe v. Wade shall suffer a huge blow.