AUSTIN, Texas - A federal judge on Wednesday ordered Texas to suspend the most restrictive abortion law in the U.S., which since September has banned most abortions in the nation's second-most populous state.
The order by U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman is the first legal blow to the Texas law known as Senate Bill 8, which until now had withstood a wave of early challenges. In the weeks since the restrictions took effect, Texas abortion providers say the impact has been "exactly what we feared."
But even with the law on hold, abortion services in Texas may not instantly resume because doctors still fear that they could be sued without a more permanent legal decision.
Texas officials are likely to seek a swift reversal from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which previously allowed the restrictions to take effect.
The law, signed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in May, prohibits abortions once cardiac activity is detected, which is usually around six weeks, before some women even know they are pregnant. To enforce the law, Texas deputized private citizens to file lawsuits against violators, and has entitled them to at least $10,000 in damages if successful.
The lawsuit was brought by the Biden administration, which has said the restrictions were enacted in defiance of the U.S. Constitution.
"A state may not ban abortions at six weeks. Texas knew this, but it wanted a six-week ban anyway, so the state resorted to an unprecedented scheme of vigilante justice that was designed to scare abortion providers and others who might help women exercise their constitutional rights," Justice Department attorney Brian Netter told the federal court Friday.
Abortion providers say their fears have become reality in the short time the law has been in effect. Planned Parenthood says the number of patients from Texas at its clinics in the state decreased by nearly 80% in the two weeks after the law took effect.
Some providers have said that Texas clinics are now in danger of closing while neighboring states struggle to keep up with a surge of patients who must drive hundreds of miles. Other women, they say, are being forced to carry pregnancies to term.
Other states, mostly in the South, have passed similar laws that ban abortion within the early weeks of pregnancy, all of which judges have blocked. But Texas' version has so far outmaneuvered the courts because it leaves enforcement to private citizens to file suits, not prosecutors, which critics say amounts to a bounty.
"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, lawful process of justice in Texas."
The Texas law is just one that has set up the biggest test of abortion rights in the U.S. in decades, and it is part of a broader push by Republicans nationwide to impose new restrictions on abortion.
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court begins a new term, which in December will include arguments in Mississippi's bid to overturn 1973's landmark Roe v. Wade decision guaranteeing a woman's right to an abortion.
Last month, the court did not rule on the constitutionality of the Texas law in allowing it to remain in place. But abortion providers took that 5-4 vote as an ominous sign about where the court might be heading on abortion after its conservative majority was fortified with three appointees of former President Donald Trump.
Ahead of the new Supreme Court term, Planned Parenthood on Friday released a report saying that if Roe v. Wade were overturned, 26 states are primed to ban abortion. This year alone, nearly 600 abortion restrictions have been introduced in statehouses nationwide, with more than 90 becoming law, according to Planned Parenthood.
Texas officials argued in court filings the week of Sept. 26 that even if the law were put on hold temporarily, providers could still face the threat of litigation over violations that might occur in the time between a permanent ruling.
At least one Texas abortion provider has admitted to violating the law and been sued -- but not by abortion opponents. Former attorneys in Illinois and Arkansas say they sued a San Antonio doctor in hopes of getting a judge who would invalidate the law.
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