AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Abortion resumed Thursday in some Texas clinics after a federal judge struck down the most restrictive abortion law in America, but doctors across the state backed normal operations with a court battle. Don’t be in a hurry to start again.
A late Wednesday order by US District Judge Robert Pittman was intended to give Texas clinics cover to see most patients for the first time in early September, when legislation known as Senate Bill 8 went into effect, once Abortion was banned when cardiac activity was detected, usually around six weeks.
Amy Hagstrom Miller, president of Whole Women’s Health, said early Thursday that four of her Texas clinics called some patients who were on the list in case the law was blocked at some point. Other appointments were being scheduled for days to come, and phone lines were busy again, she said.
But the relief felt by Texas abortion providers was dampened in the coming days by the prospect of an appeals court reinstating the law. Meanwhile, some Texas physicians were still refusing to perform abortions, fearing they could be held liable despite the judge’s order.
“There’s really hope from patients and staff, and I think there’s a little bit of despair in that hope,” Hagstrom Miller said. “People know this opportunity may be short-lived.”
The law leaves enforcement entirely in the hands of private citizens, who are entitled to collect $10,000 in damages if successful prosecutions are brought against abortion providers who violate the restrictions. Planned Parenthood, which said it hoped the order would allow clinics to resume abortion services as soon as possible, did not immediately offer an update on its plans Thursday.
Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office immediately gave notice of the state’s intent to appeal, but had yet to do so on Thursday.
“The sanctity of human life is and always will be a top priority for me,” Paxton tweeted.
Pittman’s order dealt the first legal blow to Senate Bill 8, which had faced earlier challenges. In the weeks after the restrictions went into effect, Texas abortion providers said the impact was “exactly what we feared.”
In the 113-page opinion, Pittman took Texas to task, saying that Republican lawmakers have “made an unprecedented and transparent statutory plan” to leave enforcement entirely in the hands of private citizens, which will bring about successful prosecutions against abortion providers. You can pay damages. Violate restrictions.
The law, signed by Republican Governor Greg Abbott in May, has the effect of banning abortions before some women even know they are pregnant.
“Ever since SB 8 took effect, women have been barred from taking control of their lives in ways protected by the Constitution,” wrote Pittman, who was appointed to the bench by former President Barack Obama.
“While other courts may find a way to avoid this conclusion, it is their decision; this Court will not sanction another day for this aggressive deprivation of such an important right.”
The lawsuit was brought by the Biden administration, which has said the sanctions were imposed in defiance of the US Constitution. Attorney General Merrick Garland called the order “a victory for women in Texas and for the rule of law.”
The law was effective from 1 September.
“For more than a month now, Texans have been denied access to abortion because of an unconstitutional law that should never have taken effect. Today the court-ordered relief is overdue, and we are grateful that the Department of Justice moved swiftly in its search,” said Alexis McGill Johnson, president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
WATCH: New state abortion laws, the future of Roe v. Wade, and the upcoming Supreme Court term
Texas Right to Life, the state’s largest anti-abortion group, said the order was not unexpected.
“It is ultimately the legacy of Roe v. Wade, that you have activist judges bending backwards, bending precedent, bending the law to cater to the abortion industry,” said Kimberlynn Schwartz, a spokeswoman for the group. “These proactive judges will first formulate their conclusion: abortion is a so-called constitutional right and then work backwards from there.”
Abortionists say their fear has turned into reality in the short time since the law came into force. Planned Parenthood says the number of Texas patients at its clinics in the state has decreased by about 80% in the two weeks since the law took effect.
Some providers have said Texas clinics are now in danger of closure, while neighboring states struggle with a surge of patients who have to drive hundreds of miles to get an abortion. He says other women are being forced to conceive.
In other states, mostly in the South, similar laws have been passed that ban abortions in the early weeks of pregnancy, all of which have been blocked by judges. A 1992 decision of the US Supreme Court prohibited states from banning abortions before viability, at which point the fetus can survive outside the womb, around 24 weeks of pregnancy.
But the Texas version far outlasted the courts because it leaves private citizens to file a lawsuit, not prosecutors, which critics say equates to a reward.
The Texas law is just one that has set up the largest test of abortion rights in the US in decades, and is part of a broader push by Republicans nationwide to introduce new restrictions on abortion.
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court began a new term, in Mississippi’s bid in December in the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade’s ruling, which guaranteed a woman’s right to an abortion.
Last month, the court ruled on the constitutionality of the Texas law not allowing it to remain in place. But abortion providers took that 5-4 vote as an ominous sign of where the court was going after former President Donald Trump’s conservative majority with three appointments on abortion.
Ahead of the Supreme Court’s new term, Planned Parenthood released a report on Friday saying that if Roe v. Wade were overturned, 26 states have provisions to ban abortions. According to Planned Parenthood, this year alone, there have been nearly 600 abortion restrictions in state homes across the country, with more than 90 becoming laws.
Texas officials argued in court filings that even if the law was temporarily halted, providers could still face the threat of litigation over violations that could precede a permanent decision.
Stengel contributed from Dallas.