AUSTIN — As John Seago looked up at the Texas Capitol, he smiled. For 12 years, he has walked across the manicured lawns, schmoozing with legislators in the limestone halls. He has always urged lawmakers to “be bold." In a state as antiabortion as Texas, he’d tell them, “there is no excuse not to be aggressive.”
Finally, they listened.
On a windy Wednesday afternoon in mid-May, Seago reached into his suit pocket for the Texas Legislative Handbook, where he tracks each lawmaker’s support for the bills he considers most important as legislative director for Texas Right to Life, the state’s largest and oldest antiabortion organization. As he flipped through the pages of headshots, he reflected on his latest success: This session, not a single Republican in the legislature voted against the Texas Heartbeat Act.
It was among the most extreme antiabortion bills in Texas history, unlike anything proposed in any state legislature across the country — and it was about to become law.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) signed the Texas Heartbeat Act on May 19. It’s a standard six-week abortion ban, similar to those passed in 11 other states — with one key exception. Anyone in the country will be able to sue anyone who helps a Texan access abortion after the six-week limit, opening the door for a flood of lawsuits that could bankrupt abortion clinics and the abortion funds that help people pay for the procedure. Because of the bill’s broad language, the lawsuits could target anyone tangentially connected to the abortion, from a rape crisis counselor who recommends termination to an Uber driver who gives the patient a ride.
The existing six-week bans haven’t been working, antiabortion advocates say. Quickly ruled unconstitutional when challenged in federal courts, they’ve fallen short of their ultimate goal: a slot on the Supreme Court’s docket, where antiabortion advocates hope a new 6-3 conservative majority will reconsider Roe v. Wade. On May 17, the Supreme Court announced that it would hear Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a case that will determine whether Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban is constitutional.
Texas lawmakers were eager to pass a six-week “heartbeat bill” this session, Seago said, but he didn’t want their bill to meet the same fate as those passed in other states. So he wondered: “Could we do something bigger?”
Texas has developed a reputation as a “testing ground” for new varieties of antiabortion bills, said Aimee Arrambide, executive director of Avow, an abortion rights advocacy group in Texas. After leaving an ultraconservative legislature, laws passed in Texas move to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, the most conservative in the United States. If they make it relatively far in the court system, Arrambide said, other states will follow suit.
The problem, Seago said, is that the laws are often overturned before they ever make it to the 5th Circuit. In every other state with a six-week ban, there’s been an obvious path to challenge the bill, he said: Abortion rights groups, like Planned Parenthood or the American Civil Liberties Union, sue whoever is responsible for enforcement to prevent them from administering the law, typically the state health commission or the attorney general’s office. But with the Heartbeat Act, he said, there is no one to take to court, because every person in the country has the ability to enforce the law.
There’s never been another bill quite like it, said Elizabeth Nash, interim associate director of state issues at the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit research center that supports abortion rights. Although the law will almost certainly be challenged and overturned in the courts, with this kind of “out of the box thinking,” she said, “it’s chilling to think how far it could go.”
“I hate to say it,” said Arrambide. “But this is a pretty innovative bill.”
If it goes into effect, she said, antiabortion advocates will try to litigate abortion funds and certain clinics “out of existence,” well aware that these small, independent organizations already operate on a shoestring budget.
Asked about that possibility, Seago shrugged.
“I mean, we’d be happy with that result,” he said.
Five miles from the Texas Capitol building, Shae Ward was finishing up the long list of calls she had to make that day. The hotline program director for Lilith Fund, the oldest abortion fund in Texas, Ward starts every Monday, Wednesday and Friday by listening to dozens of voice mails from people who need an abortion but cannot afford one.
“I didn’t know I was this far along,” said one woman who was 13 weeks pregnant. “They told me it would be $800, and I just don’t have that kind of money.”
Ward sat crossed-legged on the couch in her apartment, pulling at the rips on her faded jeans as she listened to the recording. Working from home, she surrounds herself with things that calm her down: potted plants, fairy lights and a few sticks of bamboo incense that burn until her calls are done. On her side table, she keeps a book on restorative yoga for people who have experienced trauma, full of tabs and Post-it notes. This is work that wears you down, Ward said — and she does what she can to manage the stress.
Ward is used to the attacks from state legislators. In a conservative state like Texas, she said, antiabortion advocates are always devising some new way to complicate the abortion process. But usually they take aim at the patients and the clinics, she said. This is the first time she has personally felt targeted.
“I don’t know what it would be like to constantly be sued for doing my job,” she said. “Would I have to go to court?”
If the new bill took effect, anyone associated with Lilith — staffers like Ward, volunteers, donors — likely could be sued if they continued to fund abortions after six weeks’ gestation, before most people know they’re pregnant, said Amanda Beatriz Williams, the executive director of Lilith. Lawyers aren’t cheap, she added, and Lilith would struggle to cover the cost. Even if the organization could swing it, Williams said, the lawsuits would take away funding from women who need it.
Abortions in Texas typically range from $500 to $2,600, according to Ward. The Lilith Fund can only offer funding to about one-third of the approximately 5,000 callers they hear from each year, relying almost entirely on donations.
Once she finishes the voice mails, Ward starts calling the women she is able to help.
She starts with a 21-year-old who is 20 weeks pregnant, offering $500 toward her abortion. Until the six-week ban takes effect on Sept. 1, or is overturned, the legal limit in Texas is 20 weeks, so the woman only has a few days left. The full cost of the abortion is $2,600 — and no, the woman tells Ward, she doesn’t have access to any other money.
“She is probably not going to be able to get her abortion,” Ward said.
Ward isn’t sure exactly what would happen if Lilith was suddenly inundated with lawsuits, she said. But there would probably be a lot more women like that 21-year-old, she said, forced to raise a child because they can’t pull together money for an abortion.
The Lilith Fund was founded in 2001, when Democratic legislators still held the Texas House.
Things were different then, said Joe Pojman, the executive director of another antiabortion group, Texas Alliance for Life. In the early 2000s, antiabortion groups in Texas weren’t nearly as effective as they are today. Only one antiabortion law passed in the state in 2001, compared to 10 in 2017 and five in 2019.
Pojman has been campaigning against abortion since 1987. That year, he started pushing for a law that required minors to notify their parents before they could have an abortion.
“They didn’t need permission, just notification,” he said. “It was a very modest law.”
Still, he said, it took 12 years to pass.
Since then, there have been ups and downs for the antiabortion movement in Texas, he said. He thought it had reached a turning point in 2013, when the legislature passed a law requiring all abortion providers to have hospital admitting privileges. When the law took effect, along with other restrictions on abortion clinics, approximately half of all abortion clinics in Texas were forced to close. The law made it all the way to the Supreme Court before it was struck down in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.
Now, Pojman tries not to be overly optimistic. Texas Alliance for Life is “neutral” on the Heartbeat Act, he said, because he feels confident it won’t make it through the courts.
Other antiabortion lobbyists, like Seago, are not so cautious.
The mood is certainly far more hopeful this session, Pojman said as he looked around the Capitol Grill, the cafeteria inside the Texas Capitol. Conservative lawmakers and lobbyists had abandoned their masks, strategizing together over lunch.
After Republicans in Texas got clobbered in the 2018 elections, when former U.S. congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) coaxed new Democratic voters to the polls, “there was fear in the air,” Pojman said. When six other states passed six- or eight-week abortion bans in 2019, Republican legislators in Texas hung back, worried they might lose more seats if they came down hard on abortion.
“That blue wave came into Texas, crashed on the rocks and went nowhere,” Pojman said.
This year, there is a mounting feeling that Texas should go big on antiabortion legislation, he said, to “show the Supreme Court that, down here in Texas, we’re pro-life.”
“The fear is gone,” he said — and legislators are willing to try anything.