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Why Texas Republicans' new abortion ban is different than most

Many Republican-led states are scrambling to approve sweeping new abortion bans, but Texas' new state law goes further in one especially pernicious way.

As recently as May 2019, just two years ago, Texas Republicans and their allies were not at all eager to approve a sweeping abortion ban. It wasn't because they preferred moderation on reproductive rights, but rather, because they didn't think it would work out well -- legally or politically.

Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) said at the time that he considered Texas "clearly the most pro-life state in the country," but added that major abortion restrictions simply weren't "the highest priority" for GOP officials. Patrick concluded that other states could take the lead.

A lot can change in two years.

Texas became the largest state Wednesday with a law that bans abortions before many women even know they are pregnant, but with a unique provision that essentially leaves enforcement to private citizens through lawsuits against doctors or anyone who helps a woman get an abortion.

As abortion bans go, this one's a doozy. Texas has approved a so-called "heartbeat" bill, which bans abortions after roughly six weeks of pregnancy. As the Associated Press' report noted, there are real, practical problems with such a timeline: many Texas women, at least those who can't afford to travel to Democratic-led states to terminate unwanted pregnancies, will be required to seek abortions before they know they're pregnant.

But while other Republican-led states have approved related measures, the new abortion ban in the Lone Star State goes a little further.

The Texas Tribune reported, "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 after a fetal heartbeat has been detected. The person would not have to be connected to someone who had an abortion or to a provider to sue."

In other words, if a Texan learns that a neighbor had an abortion seven weeks after getting pregnant, he could file suit against the physician who performed the procedure. And the nurse who was in the room. And the friend who drove the neighbor to the health clinic.

Whether that litigious Texan has anything to do with the neighbor or her family is, under the state's new law, irrelevant. The AP report added, "Critics say that provision would allow abortion opponents to flood the courts with lawsuits to harass doctors, patients, nurses, domestic violence counselors, a friend who drove a woman to a clinic, or even a parent who paid for a procedure."

Critics say that, of course, because it's true.

MSNBC's Laura Bassett noted an ironic twist: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) signed the abortion ban just one day after the Republican governor signed a measure banning local government entities, including public schools, from enforcing COVID-19 mask mandates.

After signing the executive order, Abbott wrote on twitter, "Texans, not [government], should decide their best health practices."

So much for that idea.

Ordinarily, the state's new abortion ban would face immediate trouble in the courts, but let's not forget that the U.S. Supreme Court announced this week that it will hear a Mississippi case that threatens to undo Roe v. Wade protections, and perhaps even allow the kind of abortion ban signed into law in Texas yesterday. Watch this space.