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SCOTUS fetal heartbeat decision about more than abortion, local advocates say

In an unusual move, the high court agreed to expedite hearings on Texas's fetal heartbeat abortion ban. Oral arguments begin Nov. 1.

SAN ANTONIO — The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments over Texas's fetal heartbeat abortion ban on Nov. 1, but justices' decision will have little to do with abortion itself.

The high court will instead decide whether states can use private citizens to enforce laws and circumvent judicial oversight.

Under the Texas law that took effect Sept. 1, private citizens can sue abortion clinics or doctors that terminate pregnancies after a fetal heartbeat is detectable.

Fetal heartbeats are generally present around six weeks gestation, before most women are aware they're carrying a child.

The law allows for civil enforcement, not criminal enforcement. That means violators would be sued, not jailed.

The proposal's architects contend, then, that legal action intended to stop the ban from taking place cannot be directed at the state of Texas.

Texas Republicans wrote the bill to circumvent courts that struck down prior attempts to pass a fetal heartbeat ban.

"The stakes could not be any higher," said Mara Posada, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood South Texas. "If the court does not take action, it would be catastrophic—not just for abortion rights, but really for all civil liberties."

Planned Parenthood and the federal Department of Justice contend that judicial inaction on Texas's heartbeat ban would create dangerous precedent, allowing state legislatures to pass laws carte blanche.

"We are concerned that all constitutional rights could be on the table if this law is not overturned," she said.

Planned Parenthood South Texas this week resumed legal abortion services after pausing all procedures when the law took effect on Sept. 1. Posada said they'd since conducted a "handful" of abortions where a doctor could not detect a fetal heartbeat.

Advocates for the abortion law say they are optimistic justice's actions today signal larger support for their cause, though Texas Right to Life would make no predictions.

"If they'd already made up their minds that they were not going to allow the the Texas heartbeat act to stand, they likely would've already said that by now instead of setting oral arguments for Nov. 1," said Kimberlyn Schwartz, Texas Right to Life communications head.

If the high court rules in Texas's favor, Schwartz said that could also signal willingness to overturn Roe v. Wade. Justices will essentially reconsider the landmark case later this year.

"The last two months have showed us we don't need abortions. The world didn't stop spinning. The economy didn't crash," she said. "Women aren't dying from black alley abortions in droves."