The most restrictive abortion ban in the country, Texas’ Senate Bill 8, has been lifted — at least for now. On Wednesday night, United States District Judge Robert Pittman suspended enforcement of the law, which empowered anyone, anywhere, to sue Texas doctors, nurses, clergy, Uber drivers — anyone construed to have “aided and abetted” an abortion that took place after six weeks gestation — for a $10,000 bounty, plus legal fees.
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The Justice Department had sued the state of Texas to suspend SB 8 last month, after the Supreme Court declined to stop the law from going into effect on September 1st. Texas is expected to appeal the ruling. It will head to the conservative Fifth Circuit and, presumably, back to the Supreme Court.
“A person’s right under the Constitution to choose to obtain an abortion prior to fetal viability is well established,” Pittman wrote in the 113-page order. “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.”
Judge Pittman sided with Justice Department lawyers, who argued the only reason the law hadn’t been halted already was because of the bounty system, designed to “deliberately circumvent” the kind of legal scrutiny that would normally result in a six-week ban being immediately suspended by the courts. (Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina and Tennessee have all tried to implement six-week abortion bans; each of those efforts has been halted on the grounds that they were unconstitutional.)
Planned Parenthood hailed Judge Pittman’s decision Wednesday. In a statement, president and CEO Alexis McGill Johnson said, “For more than a month now, Texans have been deprived of abortion access because of an unconstitutional law that never should have gone into effect. The relief granted by the court today is overdue, and we are grateful that the Department of Justice moved quickly to seek it. While this fight is far from over, we are hopeful that the court’s order blocking S.B. 8 will allow Texas abortion providers to resume services as soon as possible.”
In a given year, according to state data, roughly 53,000 Texans seek abortion care — statistics that suggest in the single month SB 8 was in effect, thousands of the state’s residents may have been forced to travel out of state at exorbitant costs, self-manage their abortions, or carry their unplanned pregnancies to term.
At least three people sued under the law in the month it was in effect, attempting to collect the $10,000 bounties. They included a tax cheat, a disbarred attorney, and an attempted fire bomber.
Even with the law temporarily suspended, it’s unclear how many Texas clinics will feel comfortable re-opening their doors and resuming services. But some providers are determined. The Center for Reproductive Rights, which represents several abortion providers in Texas, including Dr. Alan Braid, who was the first practitioner sued under S.B. 8, said in a statement that their clients “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,” adding, “The cruelty of this law is endless.”
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