Federal judge orders Texas to suspend new abortion law, state quickly appeals ruling

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — A federal judge issued a preliminary injunction Wednesday night of Texas’ controversial Heartbeat Law, placing a temporary hold on the law that bans abortions once fetal cardiac activity is detected, which is usually around six weeks into a pregnancy and before many people even realize they’re pregnant, the Associated Press reported.

Later on Wednesday night, the state of Texas filed an appeal to the injunction, which was issued by U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman, in the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

“From the moment S.B. 8 went into effect, women have been unlawfully prevented from exercising control over their lives in ways that are protected by the Constitution. That other courts may find a way to avoid this conclusion is theirs to decide; this Court will not sanction one more day of this offensive deprivation of an important right,” Pitman wrote in the ruling Wednesday.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland called the ruling a “victory” for women in the state.

“Today’s ruling enjoining the Texas law is a victory for women in Texas and for the rule of law. It is the foremost responsibility of the Department of Justice to defend the Constitution. We will continue to protect constitutional rights against all who would seek to undermine them,” Garland said in a statement.

Attorneys for the U.S. Justice Department asked Pitman to block the law Friday, arguing it was in open defiance of the Constitution. Pitman, an appointee of former President Barack Obama, questioned the private enforcement aspect of the law in court last Friday on Oct. 1.

“I guess my obvious question to you is if the state is so confident in the constitutionality of the limitations on women’s access to abortion, then why did you go to such great lengths to create this very unusual private cause of action rather than just simply doing it directly?” Pitman asked the state’s attorneys Friday.

The injunction comes as a blow to pro-life groups, who actively lobbied for the bill in the months leading up to its signing.

Constitutional Law Professor at South Texas College of Law in Houston Josh Blackman says the ruling doesn’t change much at this point.

“I don’t think anything changes today, tomorrow or even next week or next month. Until the U.S. Supreme Court says stop, I think the clinics in Texas will probably still stand guard,” Blackman told KXAN in an interview.

AP reported Texas officials were likely to seek a swift reversal from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which previously allowed the restrictions to take effect, and the state did just that.

“So, let’s say a court today puts it on hold, and the Court of Appeals puts it back in place [Thursday]. If an abortion were performed [Wednesday] evening, that could be the basis for a $10,000 judgment,” Blackman said.

The law went into effect Sept. 1, becoming the most restrictive abortion law in the U.S. The law also allows private citizens to sue abortion providers or anyone who helps someone get an abortion. It does not include exceptions for victims of rape or incest.

The Biden administration sued the state on Sept. 9 in an attempt to block it from being enforced. The law describes “fetal heartbeat” as “cardiac activity,” which can be detected as early as six weeks — a time when many women do not know they are pregnant.

This is the first legal blow to the law, which had previously withstood early waves of challenges, including a review by the U.S. Supreme Court, which allowed it to remain in place.

The Texas law is just one that has set up the biggest test of abortion rights in the U.S. in decades, and it is part of a broader push by Republicans nationwide to impose new restrictions on abortion.

Reaction from organizations

Organizations shared reactions to the injunction, some stating “the fight isn’t over.”

“Though the court’s ruling offers a sigh of relief, the threat of Texas’ abortion ban still looms over the state as cases continue to move through the courts. We already know the politicians behind this law will stop at nothing until they’ve banned abortion entirely,” said Brigitte Amiri, deputy director of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project. “This fight is far from over, and we’re ready to do everything we can to make sure every person can get the abortion care they need regardless of where they live or how much they make.”

“We are deeply disappointed by Judge Pitman’s actions today,” said Joe Pojman, Ph.D., the Texas Alliance for Life’s executive director. “Every day since Sept. 1 that the law has been in effect has been a tremendous victory for unborn children who would otherwise have lost their lives to abortion. We are hopeful that this is not the last word and that the Fifth Circuit will reverse Judge Pitman’s order.”

“At the same time, the State of Texas provides vast resources to women with unplanned pregnancies through the Alternatives to Abortion program funded at $100 million for the next two years,” said Pojman. “That program will assist 150,000 women a year and provide services for three years after the births of their children. Additionally, hundreds of privately funded non-profit organizations and church-based programs provide services to pregnant women through birth and beyond.”

“This injunction is a critical first step in restoring abortion rights and services in Texas. For 36 days, patients have been living in a state of panic, not knowing where or when they’d be able to get abortion care. The clinics and doctors we represent hope to resume full abortion services as soon as they are able, even though the threat of being sued retroactively will not be completely gone until SB 8 is struck down for good. The cruelty of this law is endless,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights.

“Texas Democrats are celebrating the news of a temporary injunction to Abbott’s dystopian abortion ban. This ban is uniquely harmful, exceptionally cruel, and blatantly unconstitutional — and since this ban took effect, people across our state are facing unconscionable obstacles to important health care and gutted access to their constitutional rights. I’m incredibly grateful to the federal government for stepping in, doing the right thing, and suing Texas’ Republican government to block this ban,” said Texas Democratic Party Co-Executive Director Hannah Roe Beck.

“For more than a month now, Texans have been deprived of abortion access because of an unconstitutional law that never should have gone into effect. The relief granted by the court today is overdue, and we are grateful that the Department of Justice moved quickly to seek it. While this fight is far from over, we are hopeful that the court’s order blocking S.B. 8 will allow Texas abortion providers to resume services as soon as possible. Planned Parenthood providers across the country have reported serving Texas patients, who are heartbroken and furious that they’ve needed to leave home for essential health care — often at great expense. Planned Parenthood will continue fighting this ban in court, until we are certain that Texans’ ability to access abortion is protected,” said President and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America Alexis McGill Johnson.

This is a developing story, check back for updates.

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