What a federal judge’s ruling means for Texas abortion law and what’s next

Texas files appeal as state law is currently blocked from being enforced

FILE - A group gathers to protest abortion restrictions at the State Capitol in Austin, Texas, Tuesday, May 21, 2019. Abortion rights advocates say the pandemic has demonstrated the value of medical care provided virtually, including the privacy and convenience of abortion taking place in a womans home, instead of a clinic.(AP Photo/Eric Gay, File) (Eric Gay, Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

SAN ANTONIO – After a showdown in federal court over Texas’ new restrictive abortion law, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Pitman granted the Justice Department’s emergency request, blocking enforcement of the law for now.

SB 8, passed earlier this year by the Texas Legislature, is a virtual ban on abortions, prohibiting the procedure after six weeks of pregnancy. The controversial law did not provide exceptions for cases of rape or incest. Under the law, Texans could sue anyone who played a role in a woman’s decision to get an abortion, guaranteeing them at least $10,000 if they win in court.

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Pitman sided with the Justice Department, which argued that the law was constructed to sidestep constitutional questions about the right to an abortion.

“A person’s right under the Constitution to choose to obtain an abortion prior to fetal viability is well established,” he wrote. “Fully aware that depriving its citizens of this right by direct state action would be flagrantly unconstitutional, the State contrived an unprecedented and transparent statutory scheme to do just that.”

Though the judge’s ruling stops the enforcement of the law, for now, health care providers still have worries about being held liable if SB 8 is ultimately upheld. Lawsuits could be filed for four years after the procedure, under the state law.

Some providers, like Whole Woman’s Health, told the Texas Tribune they plan to resume abortion care “as soon as possible.” Others, however, may hold off on abortion procedures until a more permanent court ruling comes down.

The ruling was met with praise from abortion rights groups, and criticism from advocates of the Texas law.

“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,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights. “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.”

Texas Right to Life, a supporter of the law, said Pitman’s ruling was “wildly broad.”

“This is the legacy of Roe v. Wade. Judges catering to the abortion industry, crafting a conclusion first and then searching the depths of legal literature for a rationale later,” according to a statement from the group.

Texas quickly appealed the decision, seeking an emergency stay from the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

“We disagree with the Court’s decision and have already taken steps to immediately appeal it to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement.

A ruling from that court could come as early as this week.

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