A federal judge has ordered Texas to suspend the most restrictive abortion law in the US, calling it an “offensive deprivation” of a constitutional right by banning most abortions in the nation’s second-most populous state since last month.
he order by US 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”.
In a 113-page opinion, Judge Pitman took Texas to task over the law, saying Republican politicians had “contrived an unprecedented and transparent statutory scheme” by leaving enforcement solely in the hands of private citizens, who are entitled to collect $10,000 (€8,600) in damages if they bring successful lawsuits against abortion providers who violate the restrictions.
The law, signed by Republican Governor 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.
“From the moment SB8 went into effect, women have been unlawfully prevented from exercising control over their lives in ways that are protected by the Constitution,” wrote Judge Pitman, who was appointed to the bench by former president Barack Obama.
“That other courts may find a way to avoid this conclusion is theirs to decide; 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.
Planned Parenthood said it was hopeful the order would allow clinics to resume abortion services as soon as possible.
Texas officials swiftly told the court of their intention to seek a reversal from the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals, which previously allowed the restrictions to take effect.
The lawsuit was brought by the Biden administration, which has said the restrictions were enacted in defiance of the US constitution.
Attorney General Merrick Garland called the order “a victory for women in Texas and for the rule of law”. The law had been in effect since September 1.
“For more than a month now, Texans have been deprived of abortion access because of an unconstitutional law that never should have gone into effect. The relief granted by the court today is overdue, and we are grateful that the Department of Justice moved quickly to seek it,” said Alexis McGill Johnson, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Texas Right to Life, the state’s largest anti-abortion group, said the order was not unexpected.
“This is ultimately the legacy of Roe v Wade, that you have activist judges bending over backwards, bending precedent, bending the law, in order to cater to the abortion industry,” said Kimberlyn Schwartz, a spokeswoman for the group.
“These activist judges will create their conclusion first: that abortion is a so-called constitutional right and then work backwards from there.”
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 80pc in the two weeks after the law took effect.
Some providers said Texas clinics are now in danger of closing, while neighbouring states struggle to keep up with a surge of patients. This year alone, nearly 600 abortion restrictions have been introduced in statehouses nationwide, with more than 90 becoming law, according to Planned Parenthood.