Women’s rights groups welcome decision but warn that it could be overturned by a conservative-controlled Supreme Court.
A federal judge has temporarily blocked a near-total ban on abortion in Texas, the toughest such law in the United States, in a challenge brought by President Joe Biden’s administration after the US Supreme Court had allowed it to go into effect.
The action by US District Judge Robert Pitman in Austin on Wednesday 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 access to abortion in the US, with numerous states trying to enforce restrictions on the procedure.
“This Court will not sanction one more day of this offensive deprivation of such an important right,” Pitman said in the ruling.
BREAKING: A federal court just temporarily blocked #SB8—for now. This is an important step in the fight for reproductive freedom, but the fight for abortion access in Texas is still far from over. #BansOffOurBodies
— NARAL (@NARAL) October 7, 2021
Whole Woman’s Health, a group that advocates for women’s right to choose on abortion, welcomed the decision saying: “No more Texans should have to suffer under this cruel ban.”
But the group noted that the block is only temporary, adding “we still have a long road ahead”.
Biden’s Justice Department sued Texas on September 9 and sought a temporary injunction against the law, arguing during an October 1 hearing that the measure violates the US Constitution.
‘Anti-abortion bounty hunters’
The US Supreme Court on September 1 allowed the law to take effect in a 5-4 vote led by conservative justices.
At six weeks of pregnancy, many women do not even know they are pregnant. The law makes no exceptions for pregnancies caused by rape or incest.
It also enables citizens to enforce the ban, rewarding them with at least $10,000 if they successfully sue anyone who helps 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 Roe v Wade decision. The 1973 landmark ruling legalised abortion across the US.
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 CEO 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’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.
In December, the Supreme Court 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.