Justice Department asks judge to suspend Texas abortion law
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) – A federal judge decides whether to block the country’s most restrictive abortion law, which has banned most abortions in Texas since early September and has sent women running hundreds of miles for obtain out-of-state care.
The Biden administration on Friday urged U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman to suspend the law, saying Texas has attacked a woman’s constitutional right to have an abortion. But even if the law is suspended, abortion services in the second most populous state might not immediately resume as doctors still fear prosecution without a more permanent legal decision.
This concern underscores the durability of Senate Bill 8, which has already withstood a wave of challenges. Pitman, based in Austin and appointed by former President Barack Obama, presided over a nearly three-hour hearing on Friday, but did not say when he will rule.
The law prohibits abortions once heart activity is detected, which is usually around six weeks, before some women know they are pregnant. To enforce the law, Texas has mandated private citizens to sue violators and entitled them to at least $ 10,000 in damages if successful.
“A state cannot ban six week abortions. Texas knew it, but it still wanted a six-week ban, so the state resorted to an unprecedented self-defense justice system designed to scare abortion providers and others who could help women. to exercise their constitutional rights, ”Justice Department attorney Brian Netter said. the tribunal.
So far, abortion providers trying to block Texas law have been rejected every time. This makes the Justice Department lawsuit their best chance yet to deal the first legal blow to the GOP-designed restrictions, which were enacted by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in May and came into effect on September 1. .
Amy Hagstrom Miller, president of Whole Woman’s Health, said some of the 17 doctors at her four clinics are ready to resume normal abortion services if the law is suspended. Preparations began this week when some doctors gave patients information on heart activity to comply with another restriction – requiring a 24-hour wait period before an abortion – so they were ready to go. be called back.
“It’s not the hundreds of people we had to turn down,” Hagstrom Miller said in an interview. “But there was a great group of people who said, ‘Please let me do all I can. Keep me on a list and call me if you get an injunction.
But the majority of its doctors, Hagstrom Miller said, remain wary and fear prosecution in the absence of a permanent court order. Clinic staff are also concerned. “Of course we understand that,” she said.
Abortion providers say their fears have come true in the short time the law came into effect. Planned Parenthood says the number of Texas patients at its Texas clinics declined by nearly 80% in the two weeks after the law came into force.
Some providers have described clinics in Texas now at risk of closing as neighboring states struggle to cope with a wave of patients who have to travel hundreds of miles. Other women, they say, are forced to carry their pregnancies to term.
“It’s not some sort of self-defense ploy,” said Will Thompson, a law advocate for the Texas attorney general’s office. “This is a ploy that uses the normal and legal process of justice in Texas.”
If the Justice Department wins, Texas officials would likely seek an early overturn from the U.S. 5th Court of Appeals, which previously allowed the restrictions to take effect.
The Texas law is just the one that has set up the biggest test of abortion rights in the United States in decades, and it’s part of a larger 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 attempt to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade of 1973 guaranteeing a woman’s right to an 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 the 5-4 vote as a worrying sign on the direction the court could take on abortion after its Tory majority was bolstered by three people named by former President Donald Trump .
Ahead of the Supreme Court’s new term, Planned Parenthood released a report on Friday indicating that if Roe v. Wade was canceled, 26 states would be ready to ban abortion. This year alone, nearly 600 abortion restrictions were introduced in state houses nationwide, more than 90 of which have become laws, according to Planned Parenthood.
Other states, mostly in the South, have passed similar laws banning abortion in the first weeks of pregnancy, all of which judges have blocked. But the Texas version has so far defied the courts because it leaves the execution to private citizens, not prosecutors, which critics say amounts to a bounty.
Texas officials argued in court records this week that even if the law were temporarily suspended, providers could still face the threat of litigation for violations that could arise in the time between a permanent decision.
At least one Texas abortion provider has admitted to breaking the law and has been sued – but not by abortion opponents. Former Illinois and Arkansas lawyers say they’ve instead sued a San Antonio doctor in hopes of getting a judge who would strike down the law.