A federal judge on Wednesday ordered Texas to suspend America’s most restrictive abortion law, which since September has banned most abortions in the nation’s second-most populous state.
Federal District Judge Robert Pitman’s order is the first legal blow to the Texas law known as Senate Bill 8, which until now had weathered a wave of initial challenges. In the weeks since the restrictions went into effect, abortion providers in Texas say the impact has been “exactly what we feared.”
In a 113-page opinion, Pitman criticized Texas for the law, saying Republican lawmakers had “devised an unprecedented and transparent legal scheme” to deny patients their constitutional right to an abortion.
“From the moment SB 8 came into effect, women have been illegally prevented from exercising control over their lives in ways protected by the Constitution,” Pitman wrote. ; this Court will not sanction one more day of this offensive deprivation of such an important right ”.
But even with the law on hold, abortion services in Texas may not instantly resume because doctors still fear they could be sued without a more permanent legal decision.
Texas officials are likely to seek a swift reversal from the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which previously allowed the restrictions to go into effect.
The law, signed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in May, bans abortions once heart activity is detected, which is typically around six weeks, before some women know they are pregnant. To enforce the law, Texas delegated private citizens to file lawsuits against violators, and has entitled them to at least $ 10,000 in damages if they are successful.
The lawsuit was filed by the Biden administration, which has said the restrictions were enacted in defiance of the US Constitution.
The Biden administration argued that Texas has launched an attack on a woman’s constitutional right to abortion under restrictions designed by the Republican Party, which took effect on Sept. 1.
“A state cannot prohibit abortions at six weeks. Texas knew this, but wanted a six-week ban anyway, so the state resorted to an unprecedented vigilante justice scheme that was designed to scare abortion providers and others who might help women. to exercise their constitutional rights, ”said Justice Department attorney Brian Netter. federal court on Friday.
Abortion providers say their fears have come true in the short time the law has been in effect. Planned Parenthood says the number of Texas patients at its clinics across the state decreased by nearly 80% in the two weeks after the law went into effect.
Some providers have said that Texas clinics are now in danger of closing, while neighboring states struggle to keep up with the surge in patients who must drive hundreds of miles. Other women, they say, are forced to carry pregnancies to term.
Other states, mainly in the south, have passed similar laws prohibiting abortion during the first weeks of pregnancy, all of which the judges have blocked. But the Texas version has so far outperformed the courts because it leaves law enforcement to private citizens to file lawsuits, not prosecutors, which critics say amounts to a reward.
“This is not some kind of vigilante scheme,” said Will Thompson, defending the law for the Texas Attorney General’s Office. “This is a scheme that uses the normal legal process of justice in Texas.”
The Texas law is just one that has established the largest test of abortion rights in the United States in decades, and it is part of a broader push by Republicans across the country to impose new restrictions on abortion.
On Monday, the United States Supreme Court launched a new mandate, which in December will include arguments in Mississippi’s attempt to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade of 1973 that guarantees the right of the woman to the abortion.
Last month, the court did not rule on the constitutionality of Texas law by allowing it to remain in place. But abortion providers took that 5-4 vote as an ominous sign of where the court was headed on abortion after its conservative majority strengthened with three people appointed by former President Donald Trump.
Before the new Supreme Court mandate, Planned Parenthood released a report on Friday saying that if Roe v. Wade, 26 states are prepared to ban abortion. This year alone, nearly 600 abortion restrictions have been introduced in states across the country, and more than 90 have been signed into law, according to Planned Parenthood.
Texas officials argued in court documents that even if the law were temporarily suspended, providers could still face the threat of litigation for violations that could occur in the time between a permanent ruling.
At least one abortion provider in Texas admitted breaking the law and was sued, but not by opponents of abortion. Former attorneys in Illinois and Arkansas say they sued a San Antonio doctor in hopes of getting a judge to overturn the law.