Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.
The Supreme Court let an unprecedented law that bans abortion as early as six weeks into pregnancy go into effect in Texas overnight on Wednesday, effectively demolishing the protections of Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that legalized abortion nationwide, for Texans.
Although a handful of conservative states have passed both six-week abortion bans and near-total abortion bans, those laws have been halted by court challenges. But Texas’ law, which prohibits abortion before many people even know they’re pregnant, also has a twist that those bans lack: Rather than having the state enforce the measure, the law hands ordinary individuals the ability to sue their neighbors for “aiding and abetting” in any abortion that violate the law. There are no exceptions for rape or incest.
One anti-abortion group in Texas has already set up a website urging strangers to anonymously snitch on people over abortions. While an abortion patient can escape the lawsuit, nearly anyone else in their orbit could be sued: the abortion provider, clinic workers, people who may pay for the abortion, people who may drive them to the appointment.
Although the law bars someone who impregnates a patient through rape from suing, abortion rights advocates still fear that the law could be harnessed by an abusive partner to harass a patient. (Plus, many sexual assaults go unreported to law enforcement.)
Someone who sues over the law could be rewarded with a bounty of $10,000 in damages, plus attorney fees.
If someone successfully defends themselves against a lawsuit, they are not able to recoup attorney fees—setting the stage for abortion rights advocates to face hordes of frivolous and expensive lawsuits, with no way to recover their losses.
Over the summer, Texas abortion providers sued to block the law from taking effect. After a lower court failed to act earlier this week, that challenge was kicked up to the Supreme Court.
In their application to the Supreme Court, the providers warned that the law “would immediately and catastrophically reduce abortion access in Texas, barring care for at least 85 percent of Texas abortion patients (those who are six weeks pregnant or greater) and likely forcing many abortion clinics ultimately to close.”
“Patients who can scrape together resources will be forced to attempt to leave the state to obtain an abortion, and many will be delayed until later in pregnancy,” the application continued. “The remaining Texans who need an abortion will be forced to remain pregnant against their will or to attempt to end their pregnancies without medical supervision.”
But the Supreme Court did not act on the law ahead of it taking effect early Wednesday morning; after years of concentrated efforts by anti-abortion advocates, the nation’s highest court is now dominated 6-3 by conservatives.
Roe may be overturned outright in the Supreme Court’s next session, where the justices are set to hear a challenge out of Mississippi over a 15-week abortion ban. That case will give the justices the opportunity to decide whether states should be allowed to outlaw abortion ahead of fetal viability, a benchmark that typically occurs around 24 weeks in pregnancy.
But by the time the Supreme Court takes up that case, it may not matter much for people who want abortions. Anti-abortion advocates have made an art form out of taking successful abortion restrictions in one state and spreading them across the country. Now that Texas has shown that it’s possible to enact one type of six-week abortion ban, other red states are expected to quickly copy it.