Understanding Abortion Laws

Illustration by Maeghan McKenzie

Texas has implemented new restrictions on abortions. Abortion has always been a heavy topic to discuss, especially when it can be difficult to understand what exactly abortions entail and the behind-the-scenes legal work of them.

Texas Law

On May 19, 2021, Texas signed the "Heartbeat Act" into law. The legislation also went by Senate Bill 8, and restricted abortions of any kind six weeks after the initial pregnancy.

Contradictory to this, individuals with uteruses often don't know they are pregnant within the first six weeks after conception.

Shannon Najmabadi is a Texas Tribune journalistwho covered the new legislation in detail. The new law bans abortions whenever an ultrasound device can detect what lawmakers defined as a "fetal heartbeat," which can appear as early as six weeks into the pregnancy.

"Medical and legal experts say the term is misleading because embryos don’t possess a heart at that developmental stage," Najmabadi wrote.

This decision is at odds with Supreme Court precedent, which prohibits states from banning abortion before the fetus is viable.

The new ban does not make exceptions for cases of rape and incest, and the pregnant person will be penalized if they get an abortion. The law does include an exception for medical emergencies.

"Instead of having the government enforce the law, the bill turns the reins over to private citizens — who are newly empowered to sue abortion providers or anyone who helps someone get an abortion," Najmabadi explained.

This section of the law allows Texas lawmakers to sidestep legal criticisms of the new law. Since citizens are enforcing the law instead of the government, it does not technically violate Roe v. Wayde — which restricted the state's ability to put limits on abortions.

Since the established procedure for challenging a state law is to sue officials charged with enforcing it, the Texas legislature has been able to insulate itself from legal action that could result from the enforcement of their new law.

At the time of writing, the Supreme Court has refused to block the Texas law, with three Trump-appointed justices joining the other two conservative judges in a 5-4 majority.

History of Abortions

Abortions have existed for centuries — the practice was legal in the British Colonies during the American colonial period, and the procedure was often performed with the help of other women in the community. The practice didn’t become a controversial topic until the first abortion laws began to appear on the books in 1821.

Tamar Carroll is an associate professor of Women's and Gender Studies and a department chair in history at RIT.

“[Physicians] didn’t want midwives competing with them,” Carroll explained.

“[Physicians] didn’t want midwives competing with them.”

States began legislating abortions around the turn of the 19th century. These restrictions were more targeted towards providers, not the women, in order to avoid injury to the woman and fetus. The initial intent was not to prosecute women who sought an abortion.

“There was a whole movement against not only abortions but birth control at that period of time,” Carroll explained.

“There was a whole movement against not only abortions but birth control at that period of time."

Women wanted birth control methods in the early 1900s because of how much they were suffering from childbearing, while also working at home. Women at this time were unaware of the contraceptives they should have been allowed to know of.

Besides that, women wanted to expand beyond their so-called duties of a wife — like childbearing — all because the men didn't want to. Women decided to work towards "voluntary motherhood" as a form of regulating what they wanted their bodies to do.

Abortion Legalization

The case of Roe v. Wade cemented abortion rights into law in 1971. The case legalized abortions in the U.S. in the first and second trimester of pregnancy andstate-level bans on abortion were made illegal.

The court ruled that the fundamental "right to privacy," guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment, covered a pregnant women's choice to have an abortion. This right was balanced against the government's interest in protecting the "potentiality of human life."

A new case arose in Pennsylvania in the early 1990s when Robert Casey, the governor of Pennsylvania at the time, tried to implement abortion regulations on Planned Parenthood, an organization that provides sexual health services — including access to abortions.

Casey made access to abortion very difficult for women, stating that they needed either a spousal signature — or parental signature for a minor — before being placed on a 24-hour waiting period.

Planned Parenthood v. Casey ended with a decision that stated asking for a spousal signature was unconstitutional, deeming it an undue burden. In return, however, the ask for a parental signature in the case of a minor and the 24-hour waiting period were not considered as such, and were allowed to remain in place.

Local Rules

New York's own abortion law states that abortions are legal up until viability. Viability is defined as the ability to survive and live successfully. For a pregnancy, in the eyes of N.Y., that is roughly 24 weeks. Exceptions to this rule are only allowed in the case of a medical emergency.

Lindsey Phillips, the medical director at RIT's Health Center, discussed the different options people can pursue in the case of a pregnancy.

"[The options] fall into three categories," Phillips noted. "One is continuing the pregnancy with the intention of parenting the child yourself. Another is continuing the pregnancy with the intention of having the child adopted and the third is abortion."

There are two types of abortions: medical and surgical. Medical abortions are abortions that lead to a miscarriage and are often done at home, allowing the person to have their privacy compared to a surgery.

"Medical abortions can be accomplished through taking pills up to about nine weeks gestation," Phillips explained. "The more typical surgical abortion, called the 'D&C,' is the more common out-patient uterine procedure."

A few abortion providers in the Rochester community, like Planned Parenthood and the University of Rochester's Women's Group, often provide services to those from the RIT community who need them.

RIT provides all forms of contraceptives in the Health Center, such as the birth control pill, the morning after pill, depo provera shot, access to a NuvaRing and an IUD. They do not, however, provide resources for medical abortions.

Even in heavily restricted areas, help will always be reachable for anyone who endures a pregnancy. From mental support to medical support, anyone can find the best form of help they can receive in their area while also being directed to the next best source.