Americans woke up last Wednesday morning to a new reality: Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark legislation granting a woman a right to an abortion, was violently under attack through the passage of a new “heartbeat bill” in Texas.
That law—which bans abortion as early as six weeks into pregnancy, makes no exception for rape or incest, and allows private citizens to sue anyone who performs or aids a woman in getting an abortion—is the first so-called heartbeat bill to have become law and actually be enforced. The Supreme Court did not swoop in and prevent the law’s enforcement as some had hoped: That evening, the top court allowed the law to stand in a 5-4 decision, with the five right-wing lawmakers firmly in camp against Roe simply claiming it was a procedural issue that abortion providers had not addressed, voting in effect for Texan women to lose the right to abortion provided under Roe.
For Janet Porter, the Texas law was a dream come true. The longtime religious-right activist took to Rumble, a posterboard of her book, “A Heartbeat Away,” propped up in the background as she announced the news. “That makes Texas the first state in the nation to actually enforce their heartbeat law of the 14 states who have passed them,” she told the camera.
“Grasp this for a moment,” she said, ecstatic, a smile spread across her face, her hands gesturing in excitement. “There is a place in the United States where nearly every child facing abortion is now legally protected. It is historic.”
“Today in Texas, if a heartbeat is detected, the baby is protected,” she said. “Soon, the nation will follow.”
Porter is often seen as the mastermind behind so-called heartbeat legislation, which bans women from having abortions after a “heartbeat” is detected—as early as six weeks in some cases and, for many women, before they’re aware that they are pregnant. Medical experts say the term “fetal heartbeat” is scientifically inaccurate, noting that at six weeks, the embryo—which is not yet a fetus—will have not yet developed a heart. But the term “fetal heartbeat” pulls at heartstrings, and its marketability, for a lack of better term, has Porter to thank.
While Porter has made restricting access abortion her main priority, the longtime religious-right activist’s extremism has been well documented on these pages. As Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, Porter took to her radio program to spread the racist birther conspiracy theory championed by Donald Trump. Once Obama was elected, the conspiracies didn’t stop: As Right Wing Watch reported, she falsely claimed “Obama would orchestrate food shortages to starve conservatives to death, use a swine flu outbreak as an excuse to lock them up in concentration camps, and use Obamacare to deny them healthcare and eliminate them.” On the pages of World Net Daily, a far-right conspiracy website, she frequently penned columns—her last, published Dec. 11, 2020, refused to accept Trump’s loss in the 2020 election.
When she wasn’t spreading noxious conspiracy theories, the activist was attempting to beat back the advance of gay rights, claiming Christians would be labeled criminals, rounded up, and tossed in jail if gay people had rights. She also trumpeted “conversion therapy,” a range of dangerous and discredited practices meant to change one’s sexual orientation, and was labeled the “The Architect of the ‘Conversion Therapy’ Campagin” by the New York Times. The activist, purportedly so concerned about the lives of children, even served as a spokeswoman for Roy Moore, the former Alabama chief justice who unsuccessfully ran for Senate, defending him after he was accused of child molestation and attacking the woman who accused him.
At the heart of Porter’s activism is an effort to spread a fundamentalist version of Christianity. In 2010, her views became so extreme that VCY, the Christian radio station broadcasting her show, canceled it, citing “the drift of the program toward ‘dominion’ theology”—that is, the idea that Christians are called to take complete control over every aspect of human life in order to bring about the return of Christ. Among those aspects of human life: abortion and women’s bodies.
And so in 2011, Porter, working as the head of anti-choice group Faith2Action, found an Ohio state legislator, Rep. Lynn Wachtmann, R-Napoleon, to champion legislation she had drafted to restrict access to abortion. The Ohio bill was the first “heartbeat bill” of its kind and so extreme—limiting abortion at the detection of a “heartbeat,” making no exceptions for incest or rape—that other anti-choice groups and legislators balked at it. Questioning the constitutionality of such a measure, they wondered whether the legislation would do more harm than good for their cause. Supporters of the bill said incremental steps weren’t working and were eager to directly challenge Roe. Porter herself was explicit about her goal, stating in 2017, that her “heartbeat bill” was “the foot in the door” to totally outlawing abortion.
“It was not my original idea, but I’ve been a pro-life leader here in Columbus for 26 years, and I’m committed to pushing the courts as far as we can go to protect human life, and that’s clearly what this bill is all about,” Wachtmann stated in February 2011 shortly before he introduced the bill.
At that point, Faith2Action already had a full-throttle pressure campaign underway to get the legislation passed. Under Porter’s leadership, the group urged its supporters to send heart-shaped red balloons to the Ohio governor and state representatives ahead of Valentine’s Day, “encouraging their support of the Heartbeat Bill” and to “Have a Heart!”—a message Porter repeated in a column for the far-right WND site. The bill passed in the state House later that year.
When the legislation stalled in the state Senate in 2012, Faith2Action took out a full-page ad in the Columbus Dispatch and made thousands of robocalls asking its supporters to contact state senators. That ad featured Dr. John Willke, founder of the National Right to Life and another sponsor of the bill. Revered in anti-abortion rights circles, Willke had perpetuated the false myth that a woman’s body can resist conception in rape, which may be among the reasons why the bill did not provide exceptions for abortion in case of rape. Another is that Porter doesn’t think women should be allowed to have any abortion, stating in 2017, “We’re not for killing any child, especially an innocent child for the crime of his father.”
The bill had wide support among religious-right figures both in state and out of state. An archived version of Faith2Action’s site for the bill lists E.W. Jackson, Samuel Rodriguez, Mat Staver, James Robison, Rick Joyner, Wendy Wright, Ken Blackwell, Jay Sekulow, Tony Perkins, James Dobson, and Frank Pavone as supporters. It also featured a list of current and former elected officials: former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Rep. Jim Jordan (then an Ohio state legislator), Rep. Louie Gohmert, former Sen. Rick Santorum, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, former Rep. Michele Bachmann, then Rep. Steve King, and former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore.
When the bill did reach then Gov. John Kasich, he vetoed it twice, preferring to sign another strict abortion ban at 12 weeks and citing constitutionality issues with the “heartbeat” legislation. But the bill found a champion in his Republican successor, Gov. Mike DeWine, who signed Ohio’s “heartbeat bill” into law in 2019 before Planned Parenthood and abortion clinics represented by the American Civil Liberties Union sued. A federal judge issued a temporary stay on the abortion ban and extended it again this spring.
A slew of red states followed suit, passing their own “heartbeat” abortion bans. The legislation mostly faced the same fate as the Ohio law—that is, except for Texas.
The Texas law provides a loophole those others did not: Instead of the state attorney general or other state officials enforcing the law, the law explicitly prevents state governments from enforcing it and essentially deputizes every citizen to sue anyone who performs an abortion or aids a woman in getting one. That leaves abortion clinics at a loss of who to sue. The purpose by the law’s drafters: to prevent intervention from federal courts.
So when the Supreme Court had a chance to stay the legislation, the conservative majority essentially said that the nation’s top court had its hands tied, that abortion providers in the state had not addressed the “complex and novel” procedural questions and would have to do so before the Supreme Court would take it up.
The Texas law also provides a bounty to incentivize enforcement: Any person who successfully sues would get $10,000 and their legal fees covered. Defendants who are successful are not entitled to have their legal fees covered, and anyone who aided a woman in getting an abortion could be sued multiple times. The effect is that most if not all clinics in the state have stopped providing abortions after six weeks for fear of bankruptcy.
The Texas law was sponsored by Texas state Sen. Bryan Hughes, who asked conservative litigator Jonathan F. Mitchell how anti-abortion legislation could avoid the fate of other “heartbeat bills” that languished without enforcement after federal judges issued injunctions. Mitchell, a former Texas solicitor general and active member of the Federalist Society, was already steeped in the religious-right effort to overturn Roe, representing towns sued by the ACLU over their ordinances that made abortion a crime. In 2017, while working alongside with Alliance Defending Freedom on a case about religious freedom, he trotted out a theory that he’d go on to use in Texas, claiming that no matter how unconstitutional a law was, if it did not charge a state official with the duty of enforcement, it couldn’t produce a federal lawsuit. Mitchell would become the primary architect of the Texas abortion law’s private-enforcement provision.
“We knew we had to have another way,” said Hughes, according to the Wall Street Journal. “We were going to find a way to pass a heartbeat bill that was going to be upheld.”
It’s unclear how much Porter, who was a supporter of the Texas law, had to do with this particular loophole, but the drafters of that particular bill have Porter’s popularization of the “heartbeat bill” to thank and the religious right’s decades-long campaign to overturn Roe of which she was a part.
National religious-right organizations, like ADF, have championed a state-by-state approach to chip away at the landmark legislation. This spring, the Supreme Court announced it will hear a case about a Mississippi law banning abortions at 15 weeks, a law that was based on ADF’s model legislation and a major threat to a woman’s right to an abortion. But so far, no effort has dealt as big of a blow to Roe as has Porter’s “heartbeat” legislation. Already, other states are considering a law based on Texas’ version of the “heartbeat bill.”
As she celebrated last Wednesday, Porter, too, looked forward.
“The National Association of Christian Lawmakers just adopted the Texas version of the heartbeat law as their model legislation,” she said, a smile dancing across her face between sentences. “That means we’re about to see a lot more heartbeat bills become law and actually get enforced.”