Picture: REUTERS/TOM BRENNER
Picture: REUTERS/TOM BRENNER

A Texas law barring abortion after the sixth week of pregnancy took effect at least temporarily on Wednesday as the US supreme court kept silent on a bid by clinics and doctors to block the measure while a legal challenge goes forward.

The high court took no action on Tuesday night as the law kicked in. Challengers contend the measure would ban abortion for at least 85% of the women seeking the procedure in the country’s second-most populous state. If it remains in effect, the law will be the strictest in the nation, prohibiting abortion before many women even know they are pregnant.

A supreme court decision to allow the Texas law could signal a readiness to fulfil a decades-old conservative dream and overturn the landmark 1973 Roe versus Wade ruling, which legalised abortion nationwide. Roe and the follow-up 1992 Planned Parenthood versus Casey decision now protect abortion rights until the foetus becomes viable, sometime after the 20th week of pregnancy.

The court, which now has three Donald Trump appointees, will hear a Mississippi appeal that seeks to overturn Roe and Casey in the coming months. The supreme court justices do not have any firm deadline for acting on the Texas law.

The law bars abortion after a fetal heartbeat can be detected and puts clinics at risk of being shut down if they are found to be in violation.

The law’s novel enforcement mechanism is at the centre of the clash. The measure lets private parties sue anyone who helps a woman get an abortion — and collect a minimum of $10,000 in damages per procedure — but does not authorise government officials to sue alleged violators.

That provision left unclear who challengers could sue to stop the law before it took effect. The defendants in the lawsuit include a state judge and clerk who the providers say will be responsible for handling cases filed in their courts. The complaint also names Mark Lee Dickson, an anti-abortion pastor who the clinics say has threatened to file suits against those who violate the act.

The defendants say the providers lack legal “standing” to sue at this stage because they cannot show an imminent injury stemming from the law. The government defendants also say they are protected from being sued by sovereign immunity.

A federal trial judge had been set to consider stopping the law from taking effect, but a three-judge panel of the conservative 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals blocked the lower court proceedings from going forward.

Bloomberg News. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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