A US federal judge on Wednesday ordered Texas to suspend the most restrictive abortion law in the country, which since September has banned most abortions in the nation's second-most populous state.
The order by district judge Robert Pitman is the first legal blow to the Texas law known as Senate Bill 8, which until now had withstood a wave of early challenges.
In the weeks since the restrictions took effect, Texas abortion providers say the impact has been “exactly what we feared”.
In a 113-page opinion, Judge Pitman took Texas to task over the law, saying Republican politicians had “contrived an unprecedented and transparent statutory scheme” to deny patients their constitutional right to an abortion.
“From the moment SB 8 went into effect, women have been unlawfully prevented from exercising control over their lives in ways that are protected by the Constitution,” Judge Pitman wrote.
“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 such an important right.”
But even with the law on hold, abortion services in Texas may not instantly resume because doctors still fear that they could be sued without a more permanent legal decision.
Texas officials are likely to seek a swift reversal from the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals, which previously allowed the restrictions to take effect.
The law, signed by Republican governor Greg Abbott in May, prohibits abortions once cardiac activity is detected, which is usually about six weeks, before some women even know they are pregnant.
To enforce the law, Texas deputised private citizens to file lawsuits against violators, and has entitled them to at least $10,000 dollars (€8,653) in damages if successful.
The lawsuit was brought by the Biden administration, which has said the restrictions were enacted in defiance of the US Constitution.
The Biden administration argued that Texas has waged an attack on a woman’s constitutional right to abortion under the GOP-engineered restrictions, which took effect on September 1st.
"A state may not ban abortions at six weeks. Texas knew this, but it wanted a six-week ban anyway, so the state resorted to an unprecedented scheme of vigilante justice that was designed to scare abortion providers and others who might help women exercise their constitutional rights," US justice department lawyer Brian Netter told the federal court on Friday.
Abortion providers say their fears have become reality in the short time the law has been in effect. Planned Parenthood says the number of patients from Texas at its clinics in the state decreased by nearly 80 per cent in the two weeks afterwards.
Some providers have said Texas clinics are now in danger of closing while neighbouring states struggle to keep up with a surge of patients who sometimes must drive hundreds of miles. Other women, they say, are being forced to carry pregnancies to term.
Other states, mostly in the south, have passed similar laws that ban abortion within the early weeks of pregnancy, all of which judges have blocked. But Texas’s version has so far outmanoeuvred the courts because it leaves enforcement to private citizens to file suits, not prosecutors, which critics say amounts to a bounty.
"This is not some kind of vigilante scheme," said Will Thompson, defending the law for the Texas Attorney General's Office. "This is a scheme that uses the normal, lawful process of justice in Texas."
The Texas law is just one that has set up the biggest test of abortion rights in the US in decades, and it is part of a broader push by Republicans nationwide to impose new restrictions on abortion. – AP