What Are Trigger Laws and What Do They Mean For Abortion Rights?

illustration of abortion training book

Tara Anand / Verywell

Key Takeaways

  • While states could not ban abortion while Roe v. Wade was in place, several passed laws that would criminalize the procedure when and if the 1973 court case was ever struck down.
  • The overturning of Roe v. Wade has "triggered" laws in 13 states that severely restrict or ban abortion.
  • Some of these trigger laws are being challenged by lawsuits.
  • Additional states are likely to ban abortion.

While the Supreme Court decided to eliminate protections for abortion care last week, some states made the decision years ago.

Thirteen states had "trigger laws" in place to restrict abortion the moment a ruling reversed Roe v. Wade—the 1973 case which guaranteed the right to an abortion federally.

"Trigger laws and abortion bans harm our patients. People will continue to seek abortion care," Meera Shah, MD, a family medicine physician and chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood Hudson Peconic, told Verywell. "What the bans are really going to do is delay care and push people out further in gestational age. If they do end up getting to a health center, it’s going to increase costs, travel time, and complications if they miscarry or start hemorrhaging."

What Are Trigger Laws?

A trigger law is an unenforceable law that can become enforceable if something changes. While the laws restricting or banning abortion passed in individual states, they never took effect, because Roe v. Wade prevented the criminalization of abortion across the country. But if the federal law was ever struck down, those trigger laws could go into action.

Not all trigger laws are the same. Some ‌make an exception for abortion depending on a person’s point in pregnancy and cases of rape, incest, or if there are fetal abnormalities. However, Elizabeth Nash, a state policy analyst at Guttmacher Institute, told Verywell that even the exceptions are severely restrictive. Even if a person seeking an abortion is eligible for an exception, they will have to jump through hurdles to get it. 

"The exceptions are narrowly-tailored, because abortion opponents see any exception as a loophole. So they've written them in a way that requires people to meet a lot of criteria in order to use the exception," Nash said.

For example, qualifying for a rape or incest exception could require a police report, which could re-traumatize a person.

13 States Have Trigger Laws Banning Abortion

Thirteen states either carried or began the process of enacting their trigger laws once Roe v. Wade was struck down.

Here is what each state’s trigger law entails, according to the Guttmacher Institute:

  1. Kentucky: Passed in 2019, Kentucky's trigger law bans abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. The only exceptions are for a person who can show evidence that carrying out the pregnancy is life-threatening, or if a doctor provides medical treatment that accidentally ends a pregnancy. The state can charge anyone who helps or attempts to help someone abort with a 4 Class D felony, which can lead to one to five years in prison.
  2. Louisiana: Passed in 2006, Louisiana's trigger law bans abortion after six weeks. The state’s constitution declares Louisiana protects no one who has an abortion. The only exception is if a doctor considers a pregnancy life-threatening. People who help or try to help someone with an abortion can go to prison for up to 10 years and incur a fine between $10,000 to $100,000.
  3. South Dakota: Passed in 2005, South Dakota's trigger law calls for a complete ban on abortions and a charge of a Class 6 felony for aiding an abortion. Criminal charges may include up to two years in prison and/or $4,000 in fines. The only exception is if someone’s life is in danger.
  4. Idaho: Passed in 2020, Idaho's six-week abortion ban goes into effect 30 days after Roe v. Wade is overturned. Anyone who has an abortion or assists in an abortion may face up to two to five years in prison. Medical providers who assist with abortions will have their licenses suspended for six months and permanently revoked in a second offense.
  5. Tennessee: Passed in 2019, Tennessee's ban on abortions after six weeks takes effect 30 days after Roe v. Wade is overturned. The state will charge anyone who receives or helps with abortion services with a Class C felony, leading to 3 to 15 years in prison and fines up to $10,000. The only medical exceptions include a life-threatening pregnancy or if the pregnant person faces a severe and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function.
  6. Texas: Passed in 2019, Texas's trigger law bans abortion after six weeks. It goes into effect 30 days after Roe v. Wade is overturned. Anyone who gets or helps with an abortion will be charged with a first-degree felony of 5 to 99 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. They may also be charged with a second-degree felony, which carries 2 to 20 years in prison. The only medical exceptions include a life-threatening pregnancy or if the pregnant person faces a severe and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function.
  7. Arkansas: Passed in 2019, the trigger law for abortion calls for a total ban on abortion once the attorney general certifies that Roe v. Wade has fallen. The only medical exception is if the pregnancy is life-threatening. Performing or having an abortion leads to a fine of $100,000 and/or up to 10 years in prison.
  8. Mississippi: Passed in 2007, Mississippi's total ban on abortion goes into effect once the attorney general certifies that Roe v. Wade has fallen. People performing or having an abortion face up to 10 years in prison. The exceptions are if the pregnancy is life-threatening or if a person is a victim of rape and has a police report verifying the crime.
  9. Missouri: Passed in 2019, Missouri's ban prohibits abortion after eight weeks. It takes effect once the state’s attorney general confirms Roe v. Wade is no longer in place. Anyone who provides abortion service will be charged with a class B felony, up to 5 to 15 years in jail, and will have their medical license suspended or revoked. The only medical exceptions include a life-threatening pregnancy or if the pregnant person faces a severe and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function.
  10. North Dakota: Passed in 2007, North Dakota's trigger law takes effect once the attorney general provides an official recommendation that is approved by the state's legislative council. There is a six-week abortion ban that takes place 30 days after Roe is overturned. The abortion ban includes dilation and evacuation abortion methods. Exceptions can be made if the pregnancy is life-threatening or if the pregnancy is from rape or incest.
  11. Oklahoma: Passed in 2021, Oklahoma's trigger law means abortion is completely outlawed once the attorney general certifies that Roe v. Wade is no more. They will charge people who have an abortion or help with an abortion with two to five years in prison. 
  12. Utah: Passed in 2020, Utah's near-total abortion ban goes into effect once the legislative general council signs off on it. Anyone who assists with an abortion will be charged with a second-degree felony. The law includes exceptions if a pregnancy is life-threatening, if the pregnancy may cause irreversible harm to a major bodily function, if the fetus has a lethal abnormality, or if the pregnant person is a victim of rape or incest.
  13. Wyoming: Passed in 2022, Wyoming's trigger law takes action 30 days after Roe v. Wade is overturned and certified by the state governor. The law bans all abortions except for in the case of a life-threatening pregnancy, the chance of irreversible harm to a major bodily function, lethal fetal abnormality, or if the pregnant person is a victim of rape or incest. Anyone who violates the ban is subject to up to 14 years in prison.

Trigger laws in Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Utah are being challenged by lawsuits in court. While these states present some of the tightest restrictions, they may not not allowed to enforce them until a judge hears the case.

Other States Will Probably Ban Abortion, Too

Nash says to expect more states to follow with restrictive laws, or to outlaw abortion altogether. Some had restrictive abortion laws on the books before Roe v. Wade was introduced in 1973, but meaning those laws have been illegal until now.

"We have states that adopted six-week bans years ago, and those six-week bans have been tied in the courts and not in effect," she said. "But now we’re seeing courts dismiss those cases and allow those bans to go into effect as well."

In addition to the trigger ban states listed above, nine other states are certain to ban abortion:

  1. Alabama
  2. Arizona
  3. Georgia
  4. Iowa
  5. Michigan
  6.  Ohio
  7.  South Carolina
  8.  West Virginia
  9.  Wisconsin

Some States Are Preparing to Help Travelers Who Need Abortion Care

Right now, out-of-state abortions are still legal. Anyone can safely travel to another state to get an abortion without fear of prosecution when they return home.

"Politicians in many states are trying to prevent people from accessing abortion outside of their home state and accessing abortion pills by mail, but it is very difficult to prevent somebody from doing so," said Shah.

On the flip side, some states have taken proactive measures to protect out-of-state travelers who are seeking abortions. In California, Governor Gavin Newsom signed legislation to prevent the medical information of people who need an abortion from being shared with other states or departments. California will not extradite doctors who provide abortion care to out-of-state patients.

While these protections are good, Nash cautions that they mainly benefit people who can afford to travel to other states and get an abortion in the first place.

"If you are wealthier and you're White, you have resources ‌you can use to leave your state and access abortion services. But if you are low-income, if you are a Black or brown patient, or if you're a young patient, then it's much harder to access abortion services."

As states that protect abortion absorb folks form states that do not, it's becoming more difficult to get care.

"Clinics across the country are looking at long wait times, meaning that the next available abortion appointment could be three or four weeks away, whether you live in California or coming from Alabama," Nash said.

Can Trigger Laws Do More Than Ban Abortion?

Right now, trigger laws only ban abortions. But Nash said some laws are worded vaguely and could affect other methods of contraception, such as Plan B or an IUD, depending on how a state defines when life begins.

Given that Roe v. Wade allowed the right to privacy, overturning the ruling could cause a domino effect and take away other rights.

"Overturning abortion rights undermined the right to privacy, so some things to keep an eye on are the rights to contraceptives, LGBTQ+ rights, and marriage rights."

What This Means For You

The Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Roe v. Wade means individual states can decide whether or not to allow abortion. Your state may restrict when you can get an abortion or seek legal action against you for trying to get one. 

If you are seeking abortion but live in a state that has near-total abortion bans, options are available. Experts recommend going to sites such as Planned Parenthood, or the National Network of Abortion Funds to figure out the closest abortion health center where legal abortion care is available.

2 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.
  1. Guttmacher Institute. 13 states have abortion trigger bans — Here's what happens when Roe is overturned.

  2. Guttmacher Institute. 26 states are certain or likely to ban abortion without Roe: Here’s which ones and why.

By Jocelyn Solis-Moreira
Jocelyn Solis-Moreira is a journalist specializing in health and science news. She holds a Masters in Psychology concentrating on Behavioral Neuroscience.