In a challenge brought by President Joe Biden’s administration after the US Supreme Court had allowed it to go into effect, a federal judge temporarily blocked a near-total ban on abortion in Texas, the toughest such law in the United States, on Wednesday.
The action by US District Judge Robert Pitman in Austin prevents the state from enforcing the Republican-backed law, which prohibits women from obtaining an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, while litigation over its legality continues. The case is part of a fierce legal battle over abortion access in the United States, with numerous states pursuing restrictions.
“This Court will not sanction one more day of this offensive deprivation of such an important right,” Pitman said in the ruling.
Biden’s Justice Department sued Texas on 9 September and sought a temporary injunction against the law, arguing during a 1 October hearing that the measure violates the US Constitution. The US Supreme Court on 1 September let the law take effect in a 5-4 vote powered by conservative justices.
At six weeks of pregnancy, many women do not yet know they are pregnant. The law makes no exceptions for pregnancies caused by rape or incest. It also lets ordinary citizens enforce the ban, rewarding them at least $US10,000 ($NZ14,450) if they successfully sue anyone who helped provide an abortion after foetal cardiac activity is detected. Critics of the law have said this provision enables people to act as anti-abortion bounty hunters.
The Justice Department argued that the law impedes women from exercising their constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy that was recognised in the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalised abortion nationwide. The department also argued that the law improperly interferes with the operations of the federal government to provide abortion-related services.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, has defended the legality of the state’s abortion law, with this office saying in a statement: “The most precious freedom is life itself.”
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ruling.
Planned Parenthood said the preliminary injunction means lawsuits filed under the law cannot be accepted by Texas courts.
“The relief granted by the court today is overdue, and we are grateful that the Department of Justice moved quickly to seek it,” Planned Parenthood chief executive Alexis McGill Johnson said in a statement.
Johnson said she was hopeful the injunction will allow Texas abortion providers to resume services as soon as possible.
Pitman heard about three hours of arguments on the Justice Department’s request. Justice Department attorney Brian Netter called the law an “unprecedented scheme of vigilante justice” that must be struck down.
Will Thompson, an attorney in the Texas Attorney General’s Office, countered the department’s arguments, saying there were plenty of opportunities for people in Texas to challenge the law on their own. He said the department’s arguments were filled with “hyperbole and inflammatory rhetoric”.
Pitman’s action can be appealed to the New Orleans-based US 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, a conservative-leaning body that previously allowed the Texas abortion ban to proceed. Pitman was appointed by Democratic former President Barack Obama.
US conservatives have long sought to have Roe v. Wade overturned. The Supreme Court on 1 December hears arguments in a separate case involving a Mississippi law that bans abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Mississippi has asked the high court to overturn the 1973 precedent.