A federal appeals court on Friday night allowed Texas to temporarily resume banning most abortions, just one day after clinics across the state began rushing to serve patients again for the first time since early September.
Abortion providers in Texas had been bracing for the 5th US court of appeals to act quickly, even as they booked new appointments and reopened their doors during a brief reprieve from the law known as Senate Bill 8, which bans abortions once cardiac activity is detected, usually around six weeks.
On Wednesday, the US district judge Robert Pitman, an appointee of Barack Obama, issued an order suspending the Texas law, which he called an “offensive deprivation” of the constitutional right to an abortion. It came in response to a lawsuit filed by the Biden administration, which warned that other GOP-controlled states could rush to adopt similar measures.
“From the moment SB8 went into effect, women have been unlawfully prevented from exercising control over their lives in ways that are protected by the constitution,” wrote Pitman.
But the New Orleans-based appeals court quickly granted Texas’s request to set aside Pitman’s order for now while the case is reviewed. It ordered the justice department to respond by Tuesday.
Texas had roughly two dozen abortion clinics before the law took effect on 1 September, and not all Texas abortion providers resumed services while it was on hold. Many physicians had feared a swift reversal from the appeals court that risked putting them back in legal jeopardy.
The new law threatens Texas abortion providers – and anyone else who aids in an abortion – with lawsuits from private citizens, who are entitled to collect at least $10,000 in damages if successful. That novel approach is the reason courts had not blocked the law prior to Pitman’s ruling: it leaves enforcement to private citizens, not prosecutors, which critics say amounts to a bounty.
Pitman’s order amounted to the first legal blow to SB8. In the weeks since the restrictions took effect, Texas abortion providers said the impact had been “exactly what we feared”.
Planned Parenthood says the number of patients from Texas at its clinics in the state decreased by nearly 80% in the two weeks after the law took effect.
Some providers have said Texas clinics are now in danger of closing while neighboring states struggle to keep up with a surge of patients who must drive hundreds of miles for an abortion. Others, they say, are being forced to carry pregnancies to term.