This story has been updated.
AUSTIN — As soon as he learned about Texas’s six-week abortion ban back in the spring, Joe Nelson started making noise.
A doctor who performs abortions at a Whole Woman’s Health clinic, Nelson spoke out against the bill on the steps of the Texas Capitol. He talked to reporters. He tweeted about the dangers of the law and how likely it was to take effect.
For months, he said, “it just felt like nobody cared.”
Nelson eventually shut down his Twitter account. It was too painful to keep talking, he said, when no one was listening.
The six-week abortion ban went into effect in Texas on Wednesday, prohibiting all abortions before most women know they’re pregnant. When Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) signed the law in May, many advocates on both sides doubted that it would ever take effect. Eleven other states had passed similar laws since 2013. The courts blocked each one, ruling that a six-week ban was unconstitutional under Roe v. Wade. But after not acting on the unprecedented law before it went into effect, a divided Supreme Court refused to block the ban late on Wednesday.
This ban is different from its predecessors. S.B. 8 can be enforced by almost anyone, empowering regular citizens to file lawsuits against anyone who helps facilitate an illegal abortion. This was by design, said John Seago, legislative director for Texas Right to Life, the antiabortion organization that helped draft the bill: Because no one is tasked with enforcing the law, abortion rights organizations have had a hard time determining who to sue.
Once S.B. 8 took effect on Wednesday, the law dominated conversations on social media, as many finally seemed to realize that this is the strictest antiabortion law to take effect since Roe v. Wade. Major media organizations amped up their coverage; President Biden condemned the law, after saying little about abortion through the first eight months of his presidency. Big protests were expected in Austin, though those saw smaller crowds than anticipated. Still, Nelson and other abortion advocates are happy to see the country focused on this law. Many are just wondering why it took so long.
Antiabortion advocates were also reluctant to believe that this law would take effect. Heather Gardner, executive director of Central Texas Coalition for Life, an antiabortion group, had been expecting the law to be blocked up until the very last moment.
“I was very skeptical,” said Gardner, as she protested outside the abortion clinic Whole Woman’s Health, as she does every week. “Just like all the other laws, I thought there was going to be a court battle that would keep it from happening.”
Seago was also surprised to see the law take effect Sept. 1. “To have a significant piece of pro-life legislation that takes effect when it was scheduled — that almost never happens,” Seago said. “It’s a phenomenal victory for our movement.”
Since last night, many abortion clinics in Texas have been inundated with financial support to help keep them afloat. Whole Woman’s Health Alliance, the advocacy group affiliated with the network of clinics, raised more than $40,000 between Tuesday and Wednesday night, according to Sonja Miller, director of people and culture at Whole Woman’s Health. Antiabortion advocates expressed their support for the law in other ways, with some soliciting tips on potential violations through a tip line website.
Abortion clinics needed support months ago, Nelson said. At Whole Woman’s Health, he added, staff members started feeling the effects of the law as soon as it was signed in May. Months before it took effect, several “extremely key staff” left the clinic, worried that they could be held liable under S.B. 8, he said. For much of the summer, he said, his clinic has not been equipped to provide surgical abortions, only offering the abortion pill.
“Even just operating before the law went into effect has been a daily struggle.”
Even after the law took effect, some abortion rights advocates expected to see more people speaking out. A protest organized by Trust Respect Access, a coalition of abortion rights organizations, drew several dozen to the steps of the Texas Capitol on Wednesday.
Susan Pintchovski, 71, had expected much larger crowds.
For Pintchovski and the three friends who joined her on Wednesday, this was not, as Pintchovski put it, “their first rodeo.” The group has been advocating for abortion rights for years, as part of their activist efforts with the National Council of Jewish Women. The scene on Wednesday stood in stark contrast to the one she remembers from 2013, she said, when an antiabortion law threatened to close half the clinics in Texas — and Democratic state legislator Wendy Davis temporarily blocked it with a filibuster.
“Thousands and thousands” of people gathered at the state Capitol that night, Pintchovski said, staying into the early hours of the morning. In the gallery, the crowd cheered so loud that the legislature had to delay the vote.
This time around, Pintchovski and her friends were hoping Texans would bring a similar energy to their resistance. But many advocates in the state have been “worn down,” she said.
“I think younger people just don’t get it,” said 62-year-old Amy Webberman, because abortion has been legal their whole lives. Her 29-year-old daughter “has never really felt what that limit might mean for her,” Webberman said, because she was born after Roe v. Wade.
Webberman remembers. So do her friends.
“If you wanted an abortion, you went to California — if you could afford it,” said Elyse Rosenberg, 66.
“Everybody had a daughter or knew somebody who had had a bad outcome” after an illegal abortion, Webberman said. “That was what created all the energy around getting [Roe v. Wade] passed.”
Marina Downs, 26, came to the protest on her lunch break, she said. She hadn’t heard too much about the bill in the lead up to Wednesday — but she said she thought it sounded like something out of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
“Honestly for the past two months, I’ve just been kind of numb to it,” she said.
She wishes she had done more to advocate against the law.
But it’s “so over the top,” she said, that it’s hard to know what anyone could’ve done to stop it.