Most Abortions in Texas Are Banned Again After Court Ruling

A federal appeals court panel temporarily reinstated the law that bans most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy while it considers a district judge’s ruling.

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HOUSTON — A federal appeals court panel reinstated Texas’ restrictive abortion law late Friday, temporarily restoring a ban on virtually all procedures that had been blocked by a lower court two days earlier in a case brought by the Biden administration.

The decision by three judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in a terse two-page ruling granting a stay as it considers an appeal by the state of Texas, had been expected by many abortion providers. While at least six clinics in Texas had begun conducting abortions beyond the limits of the new law this week, most of the state’s roughly two dozen providers had opted not to take that step as the case moved through the courts.

“Tonight the Fifth Circuit has granted an administrative stay in the #SB8 case,” the Texas attorney general, Ken Paxton, wrote on Twitter on Friday night. “I will continue to fight to keep #Texas free from federal overreach.”

The law, which bans abortions after fetal cardiac activity is detected, at about six weeks of pregnancy, has altered the landscape for abortions in the nation’s second-most-populous state because of its unique structure, which bars state officials from enforcing its provisions, leaving that instead to private citizens.

The Biden administration sued to halt the law, and on Wednesday, a U.S. District Court judge in Austin, Robert L. Pitman, granted the Justice Department’s request to halt its enforcement. In his 113-page opinion, he wrote that because of the law, “women have been unlawfully prevented from exercising control over their own lives in ways that are protected by the Constitution.”

In its brief ruling on Friday, the appeals court panel, made up of Judges Carl E. Stewart, Catharina Haynes and James C. Ho, called on lawyers for the Biden administration to respond to Texas’ appeal by Tuesday.

The abortion law went into effect at the start of September after the Supreme Court, in an emergency ruling, declined to intervene, and it immediately stopped a vast majority of abortions in Texas. Abortion providers feared the potential liability created by the law, which allows private citizens from anywhere in the United States to bring lawsuits against anyone who performs an abortion or “aids or abets” the procedure.

Women in Texas seeking abortions after six weeks of pregnancy have since been forced to travel out of state for procedures, creating a surge in demand at clinics in bordering states like Oklahoma.

While the ruling by the three-judge panel is only temporary, the Fifth Circuit is among the most conservative in the country and appeared likely to eventually side with Texas. Legal experts said that the decision on Friday evening sent a strong signal that the appeals court would not agree with the decision by Judge Pitman, who was appointed by President Barack Obama.

“The Supreme Court needs to step in and stop this madness,” Nancy Northup, president and chief executive of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement. “It’s unconscionable that the Fifth Circuit stayed such a well-reasoned decision that allowed constitutionally protected services to return in Texas.”

Understand the Texas Abortion Law

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The most restrictive in the country. The Texas abortion law, known as Senate Bill 8, amounts to a nearly complete ban on abortion in the state. It prohibits most abortions after about six weeks of preganancy and makes no exceptions for pregnancies resulting from incest or rape.

Citizens, not the state, will enforce the law. The law effectively deputizes ordinary citizens — including those from outside Texas — allowing them to sue clinics and others who violate the law. It awards them at least $10,000 per illegal abortion if they are successful.

Patients cannot be sued. The law allows doctors, staff and even a patient’s Uber driver to become potential defendants.

The Supreme Court’s decision. In a late-night ruling on Sept. 1, the Supreme Court refused to block the law less than a day after it took effect and became the most restrictive abortion measure in the nation. The vote was 5 to 4, with Chief Justice Roberts joining the court’s three liberal members in dissent.

The legal battle continues. On Oct. 8, a federal appeals court panel reinstated the law, temporarily restoring the ban on virtually all procedures that had been blocked by a lower court two days earlier in a case brought by the Biden administration.

Two of the judges on the panel joined the appeals court during Republican presidential administrations: Judge Haynes was appointed by President George W. Bush, and Judge Ho by President Donald J. Trump, while Judge Stewart was appointed by President Bill Clinton.

Judge Ho is also a former solicitor general of Texas, and he worked for Gov. Greg Abbott when Mr. Abbott was the state’s attorney general.

“This is an answered prayer,” said Kimberlyn Schwartz, a spokeswoman for Texas Right to Life, which lobbied for the law. “We are confident Texas will continue to defeat these attacks on our lifesaving efforts.”

Katie Benner contributed reporting.

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