As It Happens

'Chaos' at Texas abortion clinic as new restrictions come into effect

A hugely restrictive abortion law came into effect at the stroke of midnight on Wednesday in Texas. So until 11:59 p.m. on Tuesday, staff at Whole Woman's Health were working around the clock to see as many patients as they possibly could.

Whole Woman's Health staff provided abortions until the last possible minute. Now they're planning next steps

Abortion rights supporters gather to protest the new Texas restrictions at Edinburg City Hall in Edinburg, Texas, on Wednesday. (Joel Martinez/The Monitor/The Associated Press)

Read Story Transcript 

Marva Sadler has had a very long couple of nights. 

She's the senior director of clinical services at Whole Woman's Health, an abortion provider operating four clinics across Texas that is at the forefront of the fight against the state's restrictive new anti-abortion law.

The law — which effectively bans abortions around six weeks, before most people know they're pregnant — came into effect at the stroke of midnight on Wednesday

So until 11:59 p.m. on Tuesday, Sadler and the rest of the staff at the San Antonio clinic were working around the clock to see as many patients as they possibly could.

"It was organized chaos. We were doing our very best to make sure that every woman who walked into that door received the health-care services that they needed and requested prior to the law going into effect," Sadler told As It Happens guest host Peter Armstrong. 

"I saw women coming in desperate, you know, willing to wait five or six hours, waiting in the lobbies, waiting in their cars, leaving and coming back. I saw a dedicated staff, who came in at 7:30 in the morning, and worked without stopping to eat or take a break or check on their own families until well into the early hours of the very next morning."

The clinic performed 67 abortions and saw more than 100 patients on Tuesday, Sadler said — all while a crowd of anti-abortion protesters demonstrated outside their doors. 

And the work isn't over yet. On Thursday, Sadler says counselling staff were still fielding calls from desperate patients who don't know where else to turn.

"Our phone counselling staff are experiencing not only the volume, but the emotional toll of having to say and tell these patients about this law over and over again, to try to explain something that none of them agree with," she said.

"We've heard from a patient who was a victim of rape, who just found out she's pregnant this morning, who was just about ready to commit herself into a mental institution because she physically and mentally can't fathom what she's going to do."

Supreme Court refuses to block law

The Texas law, signed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in May, prohibits abortions once medical professionals can detect cardiac activity, usually around six weeks and before the vast majority of pregnant people are aware of their condition. 

It is the strictest law against abortion rights in the United States since the Supreme Court's landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, and part of a broader push by Republicans nationwide to impose new restrictions on abortion. At least 12 other states have enacted bans early in pregnancy, but all have been blocked from going into effect.

Sadler and her colleagues tried to stop the Texas law, too. Whole Woman's Health is the lead plaintiff in a Supreme Court emergency appeal against the law. But on Wednesday, in a vote of 5-4, the top court denied their application for injunction on enforcement.

"It was a devastating blow," Sadler said. "We were looking for relief, hoping for relief, hoping that it would be very obvious how unconstitutional this is and how damaging it is to the women and the families of Texas."

In this Sept. 4, 2019 photo, Marva Sadler prepares the operating room at the Whole Woman's Health clinic in Fort Worth, Texas. (Tony Gutierrez/The Associated Press)

Sadler has worked in abortion care for two decades, and she says she's faced roadblocks before. But this new law is unlike anything she's ever seen.

Most abortion restrictions in the U.S. are enforced by state and local officials with possible criminal sanctions. But the Texas law instead empowers private citizens to sue anyone involved in facilitating illegal abortions for a minimum $10,000 US.

That means not only can abortion providers face lawsuits, but so can anyone who drives a patient to a clinic to get an abortion. Anyone can bring a lawsuit, from the biological father, to a complete stranger. 

"It's extremely scary. It basically means that the state has allowed and invited people to be bounty hunters on myself and my staff and anyone who helps a woman in need," Sadler said.

A signs hangs outside the Whole Women's Health Clinic in Fort Worth, Texas, that reads: 'Abortion is Legal, Our Clinic is Open!' (L.M. Otero/The Associated Press)

The civil aspect of the law is part of what makes it so difficult to challenge in court. Historically, a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of an abortion law would name state officials as defendants. 

In denying the emergency appeal to block the law, the Supreme Court noted that Sadler and the other plaintiffs had not made an adequate case in the face of "complex and novel" procedural questions. But the court also left a window open for further challenges.

"This order is not based on any conclusion about the constitutionality of Texas's law, and in no way limits other procedurally proper challenges to the Texas law, including in Texas state courts," the unsigned order reads.

Sadler says the clinic's legal team is already working on next steps. In the meantime, Whole Women's Health remains open with a huge sign that reads: "Abortion is Legal, Our Clinic is Open!"

"That sign is still up because, as limited as it is, abortion is still legal in the state of Texas and we're going to continue to help those patients that we can," Sadler said. "But we're also going to continue to fight to make this right."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Katie Geleff. 

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