Texas plans to appeal a federal judge’s order that blocks the enforcement of the state’s restrictive abortion law.
Late Wednesday, the state notified U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman of Austin that it planned to file an appeal to his ruling that temporarily bars state actors, including judges and court clerks, from enforcing provisions of the law.
Texas’ law, which went into effect Sept. 1, bans abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected, which is usually around six weeks of pregnancy.
“From the moment (the law) went into effect, women have been unlawfully prevented from exercising control over their lives in ways that are protected by the Constitution,” Pitman wrote.
Pitman acknowledged the possibility of his order being appealed in another court but asserted that “this Court will not sanction one more day of this offensive deprivation of such an important right.”
The decision follows a lawsuit from President Joe Biden’s administration after the U.S. Supreme Court in September declined to block the law. The White House and U.S. Attorney General praised the recent ruling, calling it a victory for women and reproductive rights.
Here’s what we know:
What is the Texas abortion law?
In May, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed what is known as the “fetal heartbeat” bill, which bans abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected, usually around six weeks of pregnancy and before many people realize they are pregnant. The law, which has been in effect since Sept. 1, has no exemptions in cases of rape or incest.
The legislation would restrict 85% of abortion procedures in Texas, abortion providers say.
Georgia, Kentucky and other states have tried to roll out similar six-week abortion bans that have been blocked by federal courts.
Breaking from other restrictive abortion laws, the Texas law relies on private citizens to enforce it by allowing them to sue abortion providers and anyone who “aids and abets” abortions. Abortion rights advocates say this aspect of the legislation prevents federal courts from striking it down because it is difficult to know who to sue.
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What did the Wednesday ruling say?
The preliminary injunction prevents judges and court clerks from accepting these lawsuits against abortion providers and anyone who “aids and abets” abortions.
In the 113-page ruling, Pitman accused Republican lawmakers of contriving “an unprecedented and transparent statutory scheme” by leaving enforcement in the hands of private citizens.
Pitman wrote that “people seeking abortions face irreparable harm when they are unable to access abortions” and hoped temporarily blocking Texas’ law would allow abortions to proceed “at least for some subset of affected individuals.”
Judge’s decision a victory for challenge from Biden
In September, five conservative justices of the Supreme Court let the law take effect, declining to rule on the law’s constitutionality.Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor called the decision “stunning” in a dissenting opinion joined by Associate Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.
Biden’s Department of Justice responded by suing Texas on Sept. 9 and seeking a temporary injunction against the law. The Justice Department said Texas had “devised an unprecedented scheme that seeks to deny women and providers the ability to challenge (the law) in federal court,” according to court documents.
Brigitte Amiri, deputy director of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, said the lawsuit is “the first time we’ve seen such bold action from the Department of Justice on this issue.”
Pitman’s decision delivered an early victory to the Biden administration’s legal challenge to the Texas law.
What comes next?
The fight over the Texas abortion law is far from over.
An hour after the ruling was released, Texas notified Pitman that it planned to file an appeal with the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Amiri said she expects Texas will seek an emergency stay of Pitman’s order to block the temporary ban on the enforcement of the abortion law.
“The decision last night was a huge relief,” she said. “But this would just throw Texas back into the chaos that it’s been in for the last month, where people have been denied critical access to abortion care.”
After the appeal, the case could eventually make its way back to the U.S. Supreme Court, which began a new term Monday.
The new term includes arguments in a Mississippi challenge to Roe v. Wade. Planned Parenthood released a report Friday that said 26 states are primed to ban abortion if Roe v. Wade is struck down.
Meanwhile, the U.S. House last month passed legislation codifying the right to an abortion, though the bill faces an uncertain future in a split U.S. Senate.
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With temporary hold, some providers will resume abortion services
Even with the temporary hold on the law, abortion providers still fear the threat of lawsuits without a more permanent legal decision.
Nancy Northup, president and chief executive officer of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said the clinics represented by her organization planned to resume operations soon, “even though the threat of being sued retroactively will not be completely gone until SB 8 is struck down for good.”
Planned Parenthood, which saw an 80% drop in the number of patients from Texas at its clinics in the two weeks after the law took effect, said it was still hopeful the decision would allow clinics to resume abortion services.
The way the law was written means that providers who resume abortion services may still be sued, Amiri said.
“This law was designed to intimidate and harass providers through a complicated web of provisions that threatened these lawsuits, even retroactively, if there was a decision that’s later reversed,” she said.
Meanwhile, Texas Right to Life, the state’s largest anti-abortion group, accused “activist judges” with “bending over backwards … to cater to the abortion industry,” according to a statement from spokeswoman Kimberlyn Schwartz.
“Until a higher court intervenes, the disappointing reality is that Pitman’s ruling will likely stop the Texas Heartbeat Act from being enforced,” Schwartz said.
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Contributing: Mabinty Quarshie and Christal Hayes, USA TODAY; The Associated Press