Texas already has the most restrictive abortion laws in the United States — and they got stricter on December 1. That’s when a new law came into effect that added jail time and a fine of up to $10,000 for anyone prescribing pills for medical abortions via telehealth and mail.
Texas bans all abortions after heart activity is detected in the embryo, which is usually around six weeks pregnant and often before a woman knows she is pregnant. Medical telehealth or mail abortions were already illegal in Texas, and the new criminal penalties went into effect the same day the Supreme Court heard arguments in a Mississippi case that could ultimately overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that established a constitutional right to abortion.
Unlike a surgical abortion, which takes place in a clinic, a medical abortion involves two pills, taken 48 hours apart, to end a pregnancy. Many people prefer this process in early pregnancy because the pills can be taken at home. The FDA approved the drugs in 2000 and the procedure is effective for up to 10 weeks of pregnancy.
Texas isn’t the only state to restrict medical abortion and telehealth. In 2021 alone, five more states have passed laws against mailing abortion pills, says Elizabeth Nash, a state policy analyst at the Guttmacher Institute.
“These additional barriers simply make it more difficult to access care,” she says. “It’s an abortion pressure game.”
Nash says this crackdown is partly a response to the pandemic when more women started seeking medical abortions.
“We’ve seen the rise and really the exit of telehealth as part of medical practice,” she says.
The new Texas law, Senate Bill 4, also reduces the legal window for medical abortion to the first 7 weeks of pregnancy.
State lawmakers passed the new law Sept. 17 in a special session — more than two weeks after another abortion law, often called the “six-week ban” — came into effect. effective September 1. he in court failed; it’s in effect for Texas women now.
“We already have the most extreme abortion ban in the United States and yet our legislature has made it a priority to add this additional restriction on abortion,” said Sarah Wheat, director of external affairs at Planned. Parenthood of Greater Texas.
Due to the “six week ban”, the new limits on medical abortions will not have an immediate impact.
“Most people at this stage of pregnancy are already barred from abortion access in Texas,” Wheat says.
But the new law could significantly affect access to abortion in the future.
By criminalizing the use of telehealth and mail-order prescriptions for abortion pills, the state seeks to forestall a possible workaround to the dwindling number of reproductive health clinics in Texas.
Already, many Texans live hundreds of miles from the nearest clinic offering abortion services. Advocates have promoted the use of telehealth for medical abortions in places where clinics are few or far between, and some states have experimented with greater telehealth flexibility — including for abortion pills — during pandemic shutdowns.
Even now, Wheat says, the new law “creates additional fear and stigma for people who might seek access to medical abortion.”
For their part, anti-abortion groups in Texas see SB 4 as a victory — a second major step, after the six-week ban, in their efforts to restrict all access to the procedure.
John Seago, the legislative director of Texas Right to Life, said his group wants to ensure that state law enforcement officials have the ability to prosecute people who administer medical abortions outside of bounds. state strictures.
“This piece is really important for this period but also to go into the future when we see even after [Roe v. Wade] we have organizations and individuals announcing that they will be mailing abortion-inducing drugs,” he says.
Nash of the Guttmacher Institute says that in some states it has become easier for people to access medical abortions through some of these telehealth services.
Seago says he wants to make sure that doesn’t happen in Texas.
“This is going to be a future public policy issue around abortion, no matter what happens in Roe v. Wade,” he says.
So far, there have been no lawsuits challenging the new Texas law restricting access to abortion pills. Mounting a legal challenge to stop the law is complicated because Texans are already banned from having abortions after six weeks, so it can be difficult to find a Texan plaintiff with standing to sue.
Ultimately, says Wheat, the latest Texas law is a sign of what could happen. She says it shows there is no end to efforts to make abortion harder to access.
“Take note of Texas, because what you’re seeing is our politicians, they’re not quitting and they can find endless ways to add fear and intimidation and restriction,” Wheat said.
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