The United States' most far-reaching curb on abortions since they were legalised a half-century ago took effect Wednesday in Texas, with the Supreme Court refusing to put the law on hold.
The law, which bans most abortions, is the strictest against abortion rights in the United States since the high court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.
The divided court voted 5-4 to deny an emergency appeal from abortion providers and others that sought to block enforcement of the law.
"In reaching this conclusion, we stress that we do not purport to resolve definitively any jurisdictional or substantive claim in the applicants' lawsuit. In particular, this order is not based on any conclusion about the constitutionality of Texas's law, and in no way limits other procedurally proper challenges to the Texas law, including in Texas state courts,'' the Supreme Court order said.
Chief Justice John Roberts dissented along with the court's three liberal justices: Justice Stephen Breyer, Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Elena Kagan.
What's in the law?
The Texas law, signed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in May, prohibits abortions once medical professionals can detect cardiac activity, usually around six weeks and before most women know they are pregnant.
It’s part of a broader push by Republicans across the country to impose new restrictions on abortion. At least 12 other states have enacted bans early in pregnancy, but all have been blocked from going into effect.
What makes the Texas law different is its unusual enforcement scheme. Rather than have officials responsible for enforcing the law, private citizens are authorised to sue abortion providers and anyone involved in facilitating abortions. Among other situations, that would include anyone who drives a woman to a clinic to get an abortion. Under the law, anyone who successfully sues another person would be entitled to at least $10,000 (€8,500).
“Starting today, every unborn child with a heartbeat will be protected from the ravages of abortion," Abbott said in a statement posted on Twitter. “Texas will always defend the right to life.”
But protests were quick.
Biden defends abortion rights
President Joe Biden said in a statement that the law “blatantly violates the constitutional right established under Roe v. Wade and upheld as precedent for nearly half a century.” He said the law “outrageously" gives private citizens the power “to bring lawsuits against anyone who they believe has helped another person get an abortion."
Likewise, the American Medical Association said it was deeply disturbed by “this egregious law” and disappointed by the Supreme Court's inaction.
The law “not only bans virtually all abortions in the state, but it interferes in the patient-physician relationship and places bounties on physicians and health care workers simply for delivering care,” said a statement from Dr. Gerald E. Harmon, the AMA president.
Clinics have said the law would rule out 85% of abortions in Texas and force many clinics to close. Planned Parenthood is among the abortion providers that have stopped scheduling abortions beyond six weeks from conception.
Abortion rights advocates say it will force many women to travel out of state for abortions, if they can afford to do so and also navigate issues including childcare and taking time off work.
Even before the Texas case arrived at the high court the justices had planned to tackle the issue of abortion rights in a major case that will be heard after the court begins hearing arguments again in the fall. That case involves the state of Mississippi, which is asking to be allowed to enforce an abortion ban after 15 weeks of pregnancy.