Texas trigger law: What does this mean for doctors? What's next in the fight on abortion?

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Friday, August 26, 2022
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With Texas' trigger ban on abortions in effect, an uncertain future awaits women and doctors. Meanwhile, pro-life forces mull stronger restrictions.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Doctors who perform an abortion in Texas could now face a $100,000 fine and life in prison, after the state's trigger ban went into effect Thursday. This comes after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade back on June 24.

The law exempts the woman from criminal prosecution and makes it a felony for medical providers to terminate a pregnancy, unless the mother's life is in danger. But who is ultimately allowed to make that determination? And what's next in the fight on abortion?

SEE MORE: Texas trigger law banning almost all abortions in effect now

Dr. Lee Bar-Eli practices as a family physician in Harris County and explained how stressful the past few months have been for medical providers since the reversal of Roe v. Wade. She spoke at a press conference held Thursday morning by Texas Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke.

"These are life and death decisions, and doctors are scared, disorganized, and have no idea what the laws are," Dr. Bar-Eli said. "Doctors are scared of lawsuits. We don't know how to read legal documents. So this is such a great way to scare doctors and hospital systems, and there's just a ton of confusion."

Confusion that comes from what Professor Seth Chandler at the University of Houston Law Center believes is ambiguity. ABC13 asked him how one would determine whether a pregnant woman's life is in danger.

"The statute is not explicit on defining how great the risk has to be. I think it's going to be up to a jury in a case where a prosecutor felt that it was only a health risk to the mother. It really wasn't life-threatening," Chandler said.

Michelle Simpson Tuegle, who is a victims' rights attorney, said that can put providers in extremely tough situations where they are forced to make a decision in a short amount of time.

"If they get that wrong, they face potential life in prison and a felony prosecution. If they make the wrong call on the other end, they have a pregnant woman who doesn't survive," Tuegle said. "The people that these laws impact are the most vulnerable --women who are undocumented, women of color, really young girls who have not had a choice in their pregnancy, and women who don't have resources always to make the same choice that maybe some of those legislators are able to make."

Elizabeth Weller, who is a graduate student at the University of Houston, found out earlier this year when she was 18 weeks pregnant that her amniotic sac had burst and her baby would not survive. She said doctors would not perform an abortion at that time and sent her home to wait until she either developed an infection or for her baby to die.

"This situation put me in a position to where I had to risk my life. I was left to gamble with my life and the health of my uterus, in effect gambling any future prospects of being able to get pregnant again," Weller said at O'Rourke's press conference.

Weller said she was lucky enough to have the hospital's ethics committee rule in her favor within four days. But she knows that now, many women in Texas won't even have that option. Chandler said it's possible the state's trigger law could get even stricter.

"Pro-life forces are concerned that the law isn't strict enough, because it doesn't prohibit women from leaving the state in order to get an abortion where it's legal," he said.

Kimberlyn Schwartz with Texas Right to Life said they will pursue efforts to expand S.B. 8, also known as the "Heartbeat Act," so that private citizens could also take legal action against a doctor who performs an abortion.

"We estimate about 10,000 babies have been saved because of our pre-Roe v. Wade statutes that regained effect after that decision. Since then, what we've seen is almost every major Texas City moving to decriminalize abortion," Schwartz said. "We need more tools at our disposal to actually protect preborn children. We cannot rely just on criminal charges from local politicians, especially some who are bought and paid for by Planned Parenthood."

Critics of the trigger ban say their focus will be getting voters to the polls in November, in hopes of restoring abortion protections.

"If this is really about life, then they need to be infusing the same energy and care into social services into maternal health care, and they are not," Tuegle said.

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