- Gov. Greg Abbott signed legislation known as the "fetal heartbeat" bill in May.
- The law allows private citizens to sue anyone who aids or abets abortions.
- It bans abortions once a heartbeat is detected, typically around 6 weeks.
A new, controversial law in Texas that bans most abortions in the state went into effect Wednesday. The law, which prohibits the procedure after about six weeks of pregnancy, is one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the nation.
Abortion rights advocates were hoping the U.S. Supreme Court would act on an emergency appeal to put the law on hold. But so far the high court has remained mum.
Here's what to know about the battle playing out in the Lone Star state.
What does the Texas abortion law do?
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed the legislation, known as the "fetal heartbeat" bill, into law in May. It bans abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected, usually around six weeks of pregnancy and before many people realize they are pregnant.
There are no exemptions in cases of rape or incest.
"Today is a historic and hopeful day,” said Human Coalition Action Texas legislative director Chelsey Youman, who supported the law. "Texas is the first state to successfully protect the most vulnerable among us, preborn children, by outlawing abortion once their heartbeats are detected."
Abortion providers say the legislation would restrict 85% of abortion procedures in Texas. The law is one of the most direct challenges on the boundaries of the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 landmark Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.
Similar six-week abortion laws in Georgia, Kentucky and other states have been blocked by federal courts.
Why the Texas law is unusual
The Texas law is different from other restrictive abortion laws because instead of relying on officials to enforce the law, private citizens are allowed to sue abortion providers and anyone involved in "aiding and abetting" abortions. This could include anyone driving a person to an abortion clinic, among other situations. Anyone who is successful in suing is entitled to $10,000, according to the law.
Abortion rights advocates say the law is written in a way to prevent federal courts from striking it down, in part because it’s hard to know whom to sue.
“Anti-choice politicians in Texas have put their cruel agenda on full display," said NARAL Pro-Choice America Acting President Adrienne Kimmell in a statement. "SB 8 effectively puts a bounty on the head of anyone who supports a pregnant person seeking abortion care after about 6 weeks in pregnancy."
"Make no mistake, this law paves the way for anti-choice extremists to turn their dystopian vision into a horrifying reality — not just in Texas — but around the country."
The National Organization for Women also denounced the law, calling it "an end run around the Constitution."
"Instead of being able to access abortion care, Texans instead face the harsh hypocrisy that bodily autonomy is only guaranteed to some," said NOW President Christian F. Nunes said in a press statement.
"We must continue to sound the alarm on these attacks on reproductive freedom and prevent S.B. 8 and any other similar laws from being enacted across the country. Abortion access is hanging by a thread," Nunes later added.
What happens next?
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule in the Texas matter on an emergency basis. This comes as the high court is also weighing a case challenging Mississippi's ban on most abortions after 15 weeks.
Anti-abortion activists are hoping to test the limits of the Roe decision now that six out of the nine justices on the high court are conservative.
Meanwhile, some abortion clinics in Texas like Whole Woman’s Health are already turning away patients seeking abortions after six weeks of pregnancy as the law goes into effect.
The founder of Whole Woman's Health, Amy Hagstrom Miller, told the New York Times the clinics would comply with the law.
All 11 Planned Parenthood clinics have also stopped scheduling abortions visits after six weeks of pregnancy, according to The 19th, which first reported the news.
Trust women, an abortion care provider, says two of its offices in Wichita, Kansas and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma are already seeing an increase in patients from Texas.
"Our clinics remain open and ready to provide quality, compassionate abortion care to everyone who needs it, regardless of ability to pay," the organization said in a press statement.
Contributing: The Associated Press; John Fritze, USA TODAY