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Texas Law Bans Abortions as Early as 6 Weeks. Here's What That Means

Abortion illustration.

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Key Takeaways

  • Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill into law banning abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected, or at roughly six weeks gestation. 
  • Experts say heartbeat bills limit abortion access because most women are unaware that they are pregnant at five or six weeks of pregnancy.
  • Many of these anti-abortion bills are challenged in the courts, keeping them from being enforced.

Last month, Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill banning abortions the moment a fetal heartbeat is detected—which typically occurs around six weeks of pregnancy. Heartbeat abortion bills continue to crop up across the country in political efforts to limit abortion access.

“A six-week ban is harmful because it disproportionately affects people who…might not know that they’re pregnant that early in a pregnancy,” Dabney P. Evans, PhD, MPH, associate professor at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, tells Verywell.

Research backs this up, showing that many women are still unaware of their pregnancy status between the five and six-week mark. “So many people do not know that they’re pregnant that early in a pregnancy," Evans says. "And that doesn’t give them the time that they need to make a decision."

The bill will ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, including cases where women become pregnant as a result of rape or incest. Medical emergencies would be an exception. The bill will go into effect in September, though it's expected to be challenged in the courts.

How This Ban Impacts Health

This law could force some to seek abortions through dangerous routes, according to Ana Langer, MD, reproductive health expert and professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Women may resort to other ways to terminate…pregnancy that could put [their lives] in danger, which is what we see happening in countries where abortion is illegal,” Langer tells Verywell. A World Health Organization analysis estimates that from 2003–2012, 193,000 women worldwide died as a result of unsafe abortions.

Banning abortion would not only strip people of safe abortion services but would also disproportionately impact low-income women who already struggle to access the procedure. In a Guttmacher Institute analysis, they found that the unintended pregnancy rate among women with an income below the federal poverty line was more than five times that among women with an income at or above 200% of poverty. Data also shows that in 2014, 75% of abortions were among low-income patients.

When abortion services are not available, Langer says women will seek other options, which can be costly. They may need to pay travel expenses to other states to access abortion, money for the procedure if they do not have health insurance, and other support services as a result of having to travel. 

And beyond impacting pregnant people, Langer says the bill will also target abortion providers and activists. “Any citizen can sue doctors or clinic employees that help women get an abortion,” Langer says. “That introduces fear among health providers to support women to get one of the essential reproductive health interventions that exist.” 

What This Means For You

The Texas Heartbeat bill is set to take effect in September, but likely will be challenged in the courts.

If you are looking to terminate a pregnancy, you can visit abortionfinder.org to find abortion care near you.

What's the Basis for This Kind of Abortion Ban?

This bill was designed to test the standard of viability. Currently, Roe v. Wade guarantees the right to an abortion up to the point at which a fetus has developed enough that, if delivered alive, it would survive. This is typically around 24 to 28 weeks of pregnancy.

Evans says these heartbeat bills use the 14th amendment as their basis, which states that all persons born or naturalized in the United States shall not be deprived by any state of the right to life, liberty, or property, without due process of law. In the past decade, more than 100 fetal heartbeat bills have been introduced in 25 states. Such bills have been signed into law in 13 states, though most have been either struck down or blocked.

Based on Evans’ research, which looked at Georgia's own bill, HB 481, supporters of the bill utilized the word “heartbeat” as an indicator of life, pregnancy viability, and personhood.

“These bills were designed to give a personhood status to that embryo, and then basically extend that legal argument around that ‘person’ has rights,” Evans says. “So the argument that anti-abortion advocates are trying to make here is that embryos, at six weeks gestation, are people and they are entitled to constitutional and equal protection under the law.” Evans stresses that anti-abortion advocates ignore the first clause of the 14th amendment that states that an individual has to be born to be considered a person. 

Overall, heartbeat bills are part of a political tactic. “In my own research in Georgia, we did some interviews with legislators after the passage of HB 481, which was the Georgia fetal heartbeat bill," Evan says. "We had one Republican who basically agreed that Roe v. Wade was settled law. But ultimately, he himself voted for HB 481 because he knew that his anti-abortion constituents felt that it’s something that should be challenged.” 

What's Next?

”Similar anti-abortion bills passed in other states are being challenged in the courts. And so it’s most likely that Texas law will be challenged,” Evans says. “That has happened in Alabama, in Georgia.”

If the law is challenged, there may be an injunction—when a law cannot go into effect until courts make a ruling on its constitutionality. According to Evans, if there is an injunction, the bill may or may not go into effect depending on what's determined in the court. “Just because a law like this is on the books, doesn’t mean that people can’t get the health care that they want,” Evans says.

But in the coming year, the Supreme Court is slated to hear an abortion case that could potentially pare back the rights to abortion established in Roe v. Wade. The case will look at a Mississippi law that bans abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

“We’re seeing all kinds of legislation like this, which is really designed to oppress people and their fundamental rights,” she adds. “The root reasons are really because of patriarchy and the desire to control women’s bodily autonomy."

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4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Say L, Chou D, Gemmill A, et al. Global causes of maternal death: a WHO systematic analysis. Lancet Glob Health. 2014;2(6):e323-e333. doi:10.1016/S2214-109X(14)70227-X

  3. Guttmacher Institute. Abortion in the lives of women struggling financially: why insurance coverage matters. Published July 14, 2016.

  4. Evans DP, Narasimhan S. A narrative analysis of anti-abortion testimony and legislative debate related to Georgia's fetal "heartbeat" abortion ban. Sex Reprod Health Matters. 2020;28(1):1686201. doi:10.1080/26410397.2019.1686201