Uncertainty, legal questions abound before law banning most abortions in Texas is set to go into effect

The future of abortion in Texas has been thrust into uncertainty Tuesday as legal battles swirl in the hours before one of the most restrictive laws in the country related to the procedure is set to go into effect Wednesday.

Passed as Senate Bill 8, the law would prohibit abortions as early as six weeks into pregnancy, whenever an ultrasound can detect what lawmakers defined as a fetal "heartbeat," though medical and legal experts say this term is misleading because embryos don’t possess a heart at that developmental stage. The state wouldn’t enforce the law, however. SB 8 instead allows private citizens to sue abortion providers and anyone involved in aiding or abetting an abortion after a "heartbeat" is detected.

Providers and abortion advocacy groups say this would affect at least 85% of the abortions taking place in the state. Many people don’t know they are pregnant within the first six weeks.

The providers are anxiously awaiting the results of their emergency appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday seeking to block the law.

In the meantime, Travis County District Judge Amy Clark Meachum issued a temporary restraining order barring the anti-abortion organization Texas Right To Life, John Seago, its legislative director, and others from "instituting any private enforcement lawsuits" under SB 8 against the plaintiff, a Dallas attorney, according to the order.

But the full scope of the order, which has a high likelihood of being appealed, was uncertain in its immediate aftermath.

Seago confirmed the order, but said it was "unnecessary" because Texas Right to Life did not plan on ever suing the plaintiffs. He argued the order does not stop other individuals from filing lawsuits under SB 8 against those suspected of having an abortion after a "heartbeat" is detected. Officials at Planned Parenthood and the Center for Reproductive Rights did not immediately return requests for comment on the order.

Seago also said even an injunction from the Supreme Court would not change anything, as providers who perform abortions that are illegal under SB 8 after Wednesday could still be held accountable through lawsuits in the future.

Attorneys from Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Whole Woman’s Health, another abortion provider, said the uncertainty around the law has created "chaos on the ground."

Planned Parenthood will try to keep clinics open, staff attorney Julie Murray said. But there is a chance that some abortion clinics begin closing, said Helene Krasnoff, vice president of public policy litigation and law.

Marva Sadler, senior director of clinical services at Whole Woman’s Health, said the organization is struggling to hire and retain employees as the future of abortion in Texas becomes murky.

As of Tuesday morning, Sadler said she was "engulfed" helping treat over 100 patients at the organization’s clinic in Fort Worth as Texans scrambled to undergo abortions on what many believed was the last day the procedure would be legal.

Sadler said the clinics will have to start turning patients away on Wednesday.

More updates from The Texas Tribune

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