Shelby Slawson, dressed in all red, leaned against the House podium in early May, poised to become the face of Republican women. The freshman representative from Stephenville was carrying Senate Bill 8 in the House, legislation that Greg Abbott signed into law this week banning nearly all abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected—as early as at six weeks’ gestation, before some women know they’re pregnant. The law also allows members of the public to file lawsuits against a woman’s physician or anyone who helped her obtain an abortion after a heartbeat is detected, such as by paying for the procedure or driving her to the clinic.
Flanked by six other GOP women, Slawson was, at first blush, an odd choice to be carrying the legislation. Freshmen typically aren’t tasked with guiding high-profile bills, particularly ones that more senior members have itched to pass for years. Republican legislators privately told me they were surprised by the assignment, but suspected leadership had determined the optics were better with a young-ish woman (Slawson is 44), rather than an old white man, as the face of the bill. She maintained her poise against a thrashing by Donna Howard, a nine-term Austin Democrat and veteran of Lege abortion debates who called the day such bills come to the floor “the worst day of the session, every single session.”
At one point in a seventeen-minute grilling, Howard, a former critical-care nurse, launched into a health lesson. She walked through the scientific literature on when a fetal heartbeat is audible, highlighting a statement from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists that said sounds heard at around six weeks are not actually a heartbeat. (Many doctors argue the heart isn’t fully formed until around nine weeks.)
Slawson closed her eyes and collected herself. “I fundamentally disagree with that,” she replied. Howard fired back: “You’re telling me that the science is wrong because you don’t agree with it?”
“What I’m telling you,” said Slawson, calmly in the quiet chamber, “is that when a beating heart represents a life within a womb, we have a duty to protect that innocent, unborn life.” Slawson was focused and skillful in evading Howard’s heated question. She avoided the trap some younger lawmakers fall into by getting tangled up answering tough lines of inquiry and creating soundbites that can later be used in courts to invalidate laws.
Republicans clapped, breaking House rules for demonstrations on the floor. Hours later the bill passed, 81–63, on a straight party-line vote except for Democrat Ryan Guillen of Rio Grande City, who voted with Republicans in support.
After the Senate, which had already passed similar legislation, approved the House’s version of the bill last week, Governor Greg Abbott signed the bill on Wednesday. He was surrounded by dozens of Republican lawmakers who hollered in support, and Brownsville’s Eddie Lucio Jr., the lone Democrat in the Senate to vote for the legislation.
Before Abbott signed the bill, but after he had signaled he would, I caught up with Slawson in the House chamber. She was snacking on Starburst candies at a window ledge, and told me it was easy standing up for the “heartbeat bill,” an issue she cares deeply about. “When you get an opportunity to work on something you’re particularly passionate about, you go a little harder, work a little longer, and we just had the right combination of passionate people and a team that worked,” Slawson said. But she denied that she had been the main driver of the legislation. “This wasn’t a Shelby Slawson bill. This was a Texas House and Texas Senate bill.”
Indeed, the Republican-led Texas Lege had been hungry to join thirteen other states in having passed legislation banning abortion once a heartbeat is detected. In only one other state, Tennessee, is any piece of such laws currently effective, and courts have struck them down in nine others. But Texas legislators felt that the Supreme Court, with a new 6–3 conservative majority, might now be more apt to chip away at decades of legal precedent set by Roe v. Wade, protecting the right to an abortion before a fetus can survive outside the womb.
In past years, Texas had been a leader in passing abortion restrictions. In 2011, it required that women view a sonogram and listen to a fetal heartbeat before undergoing an abortion. In 2013, it mandated that abortion clinics undergo expensive renovations to resemble ambulatory surgical centers and that their doctors obtain admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, spurring nearly half the state’s abortion clinics to close. The bill was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016.
But the heartbeat bill had seemed a political liability. Last session, Republicans held just a nine-seat advantage in the House and passing a divisive ban could have jeopardized seats in the 2020 election, so party leaders forwent the most controversial conservative issues in favor of “bread and butter” ones such as slowing down property-tax growth and boosting school funding. Then-Speaker Dennis Bonnen—who sported a 100 percent voting record on anti-abortion measures from Texas Right to Life, one of the state’s most hardline anti-abortion groups—sent a heartbeat bill to languish in a committee led by a Democrat. Even the future speaker, Dade Phelan, who had a similarly strong anti-abortion record, said early in that session he didn’t see such a bill passing and refused to sign on to it.
The delay on the bill and other similarly divisive ones paid off: Republicans retained all of their seats in the House in the 2020 election. Now many GOP lawmakers, more concerned by potential challengers from their right than from Democrats, have sought to build up a long list of conservative votes to flout in primaries. Republicans in both chambers have passed legislation to remove licensing requirements to carry a concealed handgun. They’ve passed bills increasing voter restrictions in light of unfounded accusations of fraud in the 2020 election. And when it came to abortion, they felt empowered to resurface the heartbeat bill—only now with the additional provisions allowing any Texan to bring civil suit against women who get the procedure after a heartbeat is present. So confident in its passage had they become that in the days before the bill was up for debate, Slawson took celebratory pictures in front of the Capitol holding a bouquet of red heart balloons.
As debate on the bill unfolded March 5 in the House, Senator Bryan Hughes, an East Texas Republican who sponsored the legislation’s counterpart in the Senate, sipped sweetened iced tea. He was following the debate at a small watch party in a conference room tucked behind the House chamber, with a few fellow GOP representatives popping in and out throughout the afternoon. While sipping the last of his drink after the vote in the House, Hughes told me how he had gotten the idea for his legislation. Other states had passed heartbeat bills, but the provision granting the public power to sue women who get abortions had been his creation. In October several Texas district attorneys—including John Creuzot of Dallas County, Joe Gonzales of Bexar County, Mark Gonzalez of Nueces County, and Brian Middleton of Fort Bend County—had signed a letter vowing not to enforce heartbeat bans and other abortion laws. Hughes was determined to find a way to enforce his bill if DAs wouldn’t.
Under his bill, anyone suspected of “aiding and abetting” a woman receiving an abortion once a heartbeat is detected, such as friends, family, nurses, or clinic staff, could be sued. There are no requirements that the plaintiff must know the woman undergoing an abortion. In fact, someone in El Paso would be able to sue an abortion provider in Dallas for possible law violations. And there’s nothing to say the case would have to be handled in the defendant’s home county—it could be filed in El Paso, forcing the defendant to travel to defend herself. During debate, Slawson—perhaps anticipating pushback—introduced an amendment to ban a rapist or family member who caused the pregnancy by incest from suing. But it is unclear whether abusers must be convicted of a crime to be prohibited from doing so, and the bill doesn’t ban their friends or family from filing suit.
In a final twist, the bill also incentivizes lawsuits by awarding plaintiffs suing physicians a minimum of $10,000 in damages plus court fees. And if they lose, the plaintiffs have no obligation to cover the defendant’s attorney or court fees. Hughes said there was “nothing magic” around setting damages at the $10,000 minimum, but noted it would serve to appropriately compensate the public for enforcing provisions of the bill.
SB 8, which will go into effect in September, will likely be met with legal challenges. A group of 370 Texas lawyers have signed a letter opposing the bill. They argue that SB 8 not only imposes an unconstitutional restriction to abortion but could run afoul of the Texas Constitution, too, by allowing someone who has not been harmed by the abortion to sue because of it. “By allowing anyone in the country to sue, we would be throwing open our courthouse doors to harassing and frivolous lawsuits against doctors—putting more strain on our already overburdened court system,” said Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, one of the letter’s signers. In passing SB 8, he continued, “the Texas legislature would be sending the message that the courts are a venue for political intimidation rather than the serious business of interpreting the law.”
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take up a Mississippi law banning abortion after fifteen weeks. A decision on the case will likely be made in the summer of 2022. Texas has two of its own anti-abortion laws working their way through the courts—one banning a common second-trimester procedure called “dilation and evacuation,” and the other requiring cremation or burial rights for fetal and embryonic tissue resulting from abortions and miscarriages. Both are stalled at the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court. A bill that has also passed the Texas House, and waits hearing in the Senate, would automatically reduce abortion access in lockstep with U.S. Supreme Court decisions. For instance, if federal courts strike down or stay Texas’s heartbeat bill but the Supreme Court sides with Mississippi and upholds banning abortion after fifteen weeks, such a restriction would automatically become law in Texas.
Joe Pojman, the executive director of the Texas Alliance for Life, an anti-abortion advocacy group, is doubtful the heartbeat bill is strong enough to survive a federal court challenge. The group often cautions lawmakers against anti-abortion bills it fears won’t survive a legal battle, often placing it in opposition to other anti-abortion groups, such as Texas Right to Life, which pushed for SB 8.
Hughes, however, is confident the heartbeat bill will survive in the courts. He noted that in 2013, Texas restricted abortions, outlawing the procedures after twenty weeks, and that provision hasn’t been challenged. “Joe Pojman said the same thing about the twenty-week ban, yet that is the law today,” Hughes said. “I disagree. I believe he’s wrong on the law.”