The Biden administration on Thursday sued Texas, seeking to block enforcement of a new law almost entirely banning abortion in the state, as Democrats fear the right to abortion established 50 years ago may be at risk.
The U.S. Supreme Court last week let stand the Texas law banning abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy, before many woman realize they are pregnant. The decision represented a major victory for social conservatives who have been trying to ban the procedure since the court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision established the constitutional right to abortion.
President Joe Biden has warned the law would cause “unconstitutional chaos” because it relies on private citizens to enforce it by filing civil lawsuits against people who help a woman obtain an abortion after six weeks, whether it be a doctor who performs the procedure or a cabbie who drives a woman to a clinic.
“The obvious and expressly acknowledged intention of this statutory scheme is to prevent women from exercising their constitutional rights,” Attorney General Merrick Garland told a news conference. He added that the law was “clearly unconstitutional.”
The law allows the people who sue to receive bounties of at least $10,000 and makes no exceptions in cases of rape or incest, although there are some very narrowly defined exemptions for the mother’s health. Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott defended the law this week, saying that the state would “eliminate all rapists.”
“The United States has the authority and responsibility to ensure that Texas cannot … deprive individuals of their constitutional rights by adopting a statutory scheme designed specifically to evade traditional mechanisms of federal judicial review,” the Justice Department said in a filing in U.S. District Court in the Western District of Texas.
The Supreme Court’s decision not to block the Texas law left abortion-rights activists worried that the court, on which conservatives hold a 6-3 majority, may be open to overturning Roe when it hears a case involving a Mississippi abortion ban later this year.
The action marked the second major lawsuit the Biden administration has filed this year trying to block a move by a Republican-controlled state government. The Justice Department sued Georgia in June, challenging the state’s sweeping new voting law.
In another sign of the administration’s abortion-rights push, Vice President Kamala Harris was due to meet with abortion and reproductive health providers and patients on Thursday.
Garland said earlier this week the department would “protect those seeking to obtain or provide reproductive health services” through a 1994 law known as the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act. The FACE Act prohibits the use of force and physical obstruction to interfere with a person obtaining or providing reproductive health services.
Because it takes several weeks before pregnancy can even be detected on a standard urine test, the Texas law means that women there could have just a one- or two-week window to seek an abortion before being banned from doing do. Some 85% to 90% of abortion procedures take place after six weeks of pregnancy, and leaving the ban in place could cause clinics to close, abortion-rights groups warned.
A majority of Americans believe abortion should be legal, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling. Some 52% said it should be legal in most or all cases, with just 36% saying it should be illegal in most or all cases.
But it remains a deeply polarizing issue, with a majority of Democrats supporting abortion rights and a majority of Republicans opposing them.