Texas Toughens Medication-by Mail Abortions with Jail Time and Heavy Fine

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Texas has the most restrictive abortion laws in America. On Wednesday, a new law took effect that adds penalties of jail time and a fine of up to $10,000 for anyone who prescribes pills for medication abortions through telehealth or the mail.

Texas prohibits abortions after cardiac activity is detected in an embryo. This happens about six weeks before most people know they are pregnant. Medication abortions via telehealth or mail were already illegal in Texas, and the new criminal penalties took effect on the day the Supreme Court heard arguments in a Mississippi case that ultimately could overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that established a constitutional right to abortion.

In contrast to a surgical abortion, which usually takes place in a clinic, a medication abortion involves two pills, taken 48 hours apart, that manipulate the hormones to end a pregnancy. This procedure is preferred by many people because it can be done at home. The Food and Drug Administration approved the drugs in 2000, and the procedure is effective up to 10 weeks into a pregnancy.

Texas does not restrict medication abortion or telehealth. Elizabeth Nash, a Guttmacher Institute analyst, stated that five states have already passed laws banning the sending of abortion pills by mail this year.

” “It’s an enticing play on abortion,” she stated.

Nash said this crackdown is partially a response to the pandemic, which propelled interest in medication abortions.

” We saw an increase in telehealth and that it was becoming a part of our medical practice,” she stated.

Texas’ new law, SB4 ,, also reduces the time frame for medication abortion to seven weeks. State legislators passed this new law on Sept. 17 during a special session — more than two weeks after the other abortion law, often called the “six-week ban,” took effect on Sept. 1. Attempts to halt that law as groups challenge it in court have failed.

” We already have the strictest abortion ban in the U.S., but our legislature decided to make it a priority to include this additional restriction,” stated Sarah Wheat (chief external affairs officer at Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas).

The new restrictions on medication abortions will not have an immediate effect due to the six-week ban. Wheat stated that most people in this stage of pregnancy are already barred from accessing abortions in Texas.

However, the new law could have a significant impact on future access to abortion.

By making it illegal to use telehealth or mail-order prescriptions for abortion pills, the state aims to prevent a solution to the declining number of Texas reproductive health clinics.

Many Texans live hundreds miles away from the nearest abortion clinic. Advocates have promoted the use of telehealth for medication abortions in places where clinics are few and far between, and some states experimented with greater telehealth flexibility — including for abortion pills — during the pandemic shutdowns.

Wheat stated that the new law “is creating more fear and added stigma for people seeking access to medication-abortion.”

Anti-abortion groups in Texas hailed SB 4 as a victory — an important second step, after the six-week ban, in their efforts to curtail all access to the procedure in the state.

John Seago is the legislative director of Texas Right to Life. He stated that his group wanted to make sure law enforcement officers could pursue people who violate the state’s strict guidelines by administering abortions.

” This piece is very important for this period, but also moving forward, when we see that even after [Roe v. Wade], we have individuals and organizations advertising that they will send abortion-inducing drug mailers,” he stated.

Nash from the Guttmacher Institute stated that it is now easier to get medication abortions via telehealth in certain states.

Seago stated that he would like to see this not happen in Texas.

“This is going to be a future public policy issue around abortion, no matter what happens to Roe v. Wade,” he said.

Texas’ ban on abortion pills has not been challenged in any lawsuits. It is difficult to mount a legal challenge against the law because Texans are already prohibited from having abortions after six weeks. Any Texas plaintiff would have difficulty finding legal standing to sue.

Ultimately, Wheat said, Texas’ latest law is a sign of what could happen elsewhere. She stated that it is a sign of the endless efforts to make abortions more difficult to obtain.

” Take note of Texas. What you will see is that Texas’ politicians are not going away and can find endless ways for fear, intimidation, and restrictions,” Wheat stated.

This story is part of a partnership that includes KUT, NPR and KHN.

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