A federal court has temporarily halted Texas' new abortion law banning the procedure as early as six weeks — earlier than any other state in the country.
In a ruling Wednesday, Judge Robert Pitman said Texas was violating its citizens' "right under the Constitution to choose to obtain an abortion prior to fetal viability.”
"With full knowledge that depriving its citizens of this right by direct state action would be flagrantly unconstitutional,” Pitman wrote, “the State contrived an unprecedented and transparent statutory scheme whereby it created a private cause of action in which private citizens with no personal interest in or connection to a person seeking an abortion would be able to interfere with that right using the state's judicial system, judges, and court officials.”
The U.S. Justice Department sued the state last month, alleging it enacted Senate Bill 8 "in open defiance of the Constitution."
Abortion providers in Texas have also challenged the law in both state and federal courts. An emergency request asking the U.S. Supreme Court to temporarily block the law before it went into effect was denied.
As a result, Texas has had the country’s most restrictive ban on the procedure since Sept. 1. Similar laws passed by other states have been ruled unconstitutional. In effect, Texas was the only state where the legal precedent set by Roe v. Wade — which legalized abortions in the 1970s — was rendered null.
SB 8 prohibits people from getting an abortion as early as six weeks, even in cases of rape, sexual abuse or incest. The law was designed to evade a court block because instead of requiring enforcement by the state, lawmakers drafted the law to be enforced by private citizens.
Under the law, anyone — including people who don't live in Texas — can sue anyone who provides an abortion after the six-week period. They can also sue anyone who provides emotional, logistical and financial support to a person seeking an abortion. The law states individuals can be rewarded a minimum of $10,000 for a successful lawsuit.
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland called the ruling "a victory for women in Texas," as well as the rule of law.
"It is the foremost responsibility of the Department of Justice to defend the Constitution," he said in a statement. "We will continue to protect constitutional rights against all who would seek to undermine them."
But Texas Right to Life, a major proponent of the law, called the ruling "wildly broad" and "shocking."
"The provision blocking lawmakers is entirely unnecessary since the language of the Texas Heartbeat Act already prohibits government officials from enforcing the policy," the group said in a statement. "However, Pitman’s effort to obstruct state judges and court clerks from fulfilling their lawful duties is astonishing."
About an hour after the ruling came down, state officials filed an appeal with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals asking the court to throw it out.
Texas Right to Life said it expects a “fair hearing” out of the Fifth Circuit, which is known for being among the most conservative federal appeals courts in the country.
In a joint statement, presidents and CEOs of Planned Parenthood South Texas, Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast and Planned Parenthood Greater Texas said the "extreme and harmful law" had been allowed to be enforced for far too long. They said they hope as the appeal process continues that abortion access be restored.
“Our patients and providers need the courts to allow care to resume,” they said. “We will keep fighting for our patients and their right to access abortion without government interference."
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